Monday, March 30, 2009


From AlterNet, left-leaning journalist and Master of Divinity Chris Hedges opines on the depressing social role higher learning plays in contemporary culture and politics:

Universities Are Turning into Corporate Drone Factories

Frank Donoghue, the author of "The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities," details how liberal arts education has been dismantled. Any form of learning that is not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools has been abolished. Students are steered away from asking the broad, disturbing questions that challenge the assumptions of the power elite or an economic system that serves the corporate state. This has led many bright graduates into the arms of corporate entities they do not examine morally or ethically. They accept the assumptions of corporate culture because they have never been taught to think.

Only 8 percent of U.S. college graduates now receive degrees in the humanities, about 110,000 students. Between 1970 and 2001, bachelor's degrees in English declined from 7.6 percent to 4 percent, as did degrees in foreign languages (2.4 percent to 1 percent), mathematics (3 percent to 1 percent), social science and history (18.4 percent to 10 percent). Bachelor's degrees in business, which promise the accumulation of wealth, have skyrocketed. Business majors since 1970-1971 have risen from 13.6 percent of the graduation population to 21.7 percent. Business has now replaced education, which has fallen from 21 percent to 8.2 percent, as the most popular major.

The values that sustain an open society have been crushed. A university, as John Ralston Saul writes, now "actively seeks students who suffer from the appropriate imbalance and then sets out to exaggerate it. Imagination, creativity, moral balance, knowledge, common sense, a social view -- all these things wither. Competitiveness, having an ever-ready answer, a talent for manipulating situations -- all these things are encouraged to grow. As a result amorality also grows; as does extreme aggressivity when they are questioned by outsiders; as does a confusion between the nature of good versus having a ready answer to all questions. Above all, what is encouraged is the growth of an undisciplined form of self-interest, in which winning is what counts."

This moral nihilism would have terrified Adorno.

More here.

The way I see it, I got lucky.

I got my BFA in theater back in 1991. Scared shitless of the whole professional actor thing, I pursued the better part of valor: I went back to school to get another degree. People had been telling me for a couple of years that I would make a good director; figuring what had really inspired my interest in theater and acting over the years were the great movies and television programs I had grown up with, I enrolled in UT's Radio Television Film department. While finding the screen incredibly interesting, I ended up being horrified by the everyday functioning of the industry--I was particularly horrified by one particular longtime television producer who had retired to a post as a television production teacher, but that's another story. Disgusted by what I had discovered, I decided the film maker path was better less traveled. By me, anyway.

But surprise, surprise. I ended up gaining something wonderful that I didn't even realize existed.

The academic study of film and television is a fairly recent phenomenon compared to the study of literature or economics or biology. That is, when scholars started taking movies and TV seriously back in the 60s, there were no existing university departments in which to sequester their work. Consequently, the field was fair game for any academic who could justify chasing after it. English professors, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, Marxists, feminists, philosophers, and various other scholars researched, analyzed, and made assertions about movies, television, their industries, how these cultural products are received, and what influence they have. Thus, film and television studies were interdisciplinary and critical from multiple perspectives at the very beginning. This hodge-podge approach was copied and expanded when universities began founding RTF and mass communications departments.

Some thirty years later, I found myself taking courses in all these areas as part of the requirements for my RTF Bachelor of Science. I came there to become a film director, but was blown away by the scholarship. That is, studying RTF made me discover, inadvertently, education's ostensible holy grail: critical thinking. After a few years of analyzing everything from the film Witness to Star Trek to shitty self-indulgent Brian Eno experimental ambient videos in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, and on and on, I discovered that I had gained a knack for looking at art, culture, and politics from multiple angles, and for making value judgments about what I have observed--it's not enough to note that a movie is shitty or great; one must ask what it is about the system that created the movie, what it is about why people respond to it in the ways they do, and what it all means for the powerful and the powerless.

It is now relatively easy for me to expand this intellectual approach to...well...everything.

But like I said, I think I just got lucky. I mean, sure, I was on the debate team in high school, so I already had a feel for politics and economics, and I had only recently completed my study of theater, so I was on fire for "art," whatever that means, but really, I studied RTF more out of a desire to be a professional student than anything else. And it's not even film studies that are so great: I saw many of my fellow students' eyes glazing over during lectures while I felt my eyes opening up--it was particularly distressing to see the lessons from theory classes utterly ignored in production classes. I don't know. It just all came together for me at that point, but apparently not for others.

Anyway, the point here is that, these days, it is relatively easy to earn a Bachelor's Degree without discovering that holy grail called "critical thinking." Indeed, university studies in general are very much unlike what I got studying RTF. That is, during the twentieth century, especially after WWII, almost all American colleges and universities decided to adapt Henry Ford's industrial model to higher education, artificially creating specific "departments" for academic specialization, essentially driving a spike into the heart of the renaissance man who had previously been the desired outcome of university study. No longer would students have a broad grasp of multiple topics; instead, they would "specialize" in one field, and one field only. No longer would university graduates reflect on society and their role within it; instead, they would become "professionals" who pursue careers.

In my humble opinion, the worst thing that's happened to the concept of college is the popular notion that one must possess a degree in order to have a better job--thrown by the wayside is past conventional wisdom, now pie-in-the-sky foolishness, that university study exists to make better human beings, better citizens, better wisdom for guiding society in ever wiser directions. Throw degree-as-financial-investment together with today's hardcore specialization of university departments, and you don't simply get a bland and narrow-minded education: you get the "moral nihilism" Hedges mentions above. Knowledge without context. A recipe for confusion at best, and self-destruction at worst.

And that's pretty much where we are right now. This isn't some recent conspiracy, and in all probability not even a conspiracy at all. We've been headed in this direction for a long time. As industry, and its controlling corporate structures, have gained ever more influence over our most foundational institutions, we, America's college graduates, have all unthinkingly ended up eagerly serving their interests, believing that we are instead serving our own--I mean, we are serving our own interests, individual career interests, but individual interests and a healthy nation are two entirely different things. Today's "best and brightest" are, in fact, brilliant people, but brilliant in only very limited areas, brilliant but blind, unable to see or acknowledge how their work affects the entire tapestry known as society.

It drives me mad, but I have no idea what to do about it.