Saturday, September 1, 2012

Transforming the obligatory passage point

As you’ve probably noticed, the frequency of posts on this blog went from five per week to one (maybe two) per month over the past few months; I have been working on my dissertation, which I am glad to tell you I have just completed. (Well, it is bittersweet, really, because my not-so-well-kept secret is that I have loved graduate school; my advisor is an amazing woman.) And speaking of school, I wanted to elaborate a little bit more on the role and power of higher education in creating a changed culture, one that is aligned with being more ecologically holistic and socially just. As I have written about at length previously (here and here), the current higher education system continues to create students with cognitive bias those good at one thing and not many, all the while making vast amounts of money.

When we think of universities, we think of them as bastions of critical thinking and academic freedom. The (wishful) goal is that college is a place where na├»ve youth are transformed into active and engaged citizens…the University of Michigan modestly calls its students and alumni “The Leaders and Best”. But while my experience at the University of Michigan has served me well, I also feel that the University, and the higher education system more broadly, is doing a disservice to the families and students that are paying out of their noses to obtain a college degree. Grade inflation and not-too-rigourous course requirements basically mean that it takes a motivated student to get a valuable experience. Within the higher education system, it seems as though universities compete on the front of how employable to large industry and Wall Street their students are, how much corporate funding the universities receive, and how large their endowment coffers are (Michigan’s stands at several billion dollars). When it comes to graduate school, recent unionization efforts of graduate student research assistants have uncovered a whole host of unseemly student-advisor relationships; the point of research seems to be the professor’s ability to get more grants. Each one of these points I can elaborate on at length, which I will spare you from now.

During my defense, Andrew asked me about recommendations I had on how young engineers can align their work with the causes of social justice and ecological soundness, rather than with extractive industry and militarism…a complicated question for a dissertation defense…Of course, the first thing I thought of is…higher education…In reality, that’s how many debates end: “We’ve screwed things up, and it will be up to “the next generation” to get out of the messes of today. We must educate the next generation differently.” While it may seem that many of these words are empty and used lightly, I do believe that education reform stands the best chance of culturing people to be more concerned about social justice and ecological soundness. 

People from all over the world gather in a place like Ann Arbor; sprinkled and scattered widely, students, faculty and staff are now concentrated, and they are shaped and morphed by the education and educating process. The diploma students walk out with symbolizes the transformation. And once students leave, they leave for elsewhere; the students are scattered and sprinkled again. (Unfortunately, it is my impression that most students from Michigan go to one of four places: Chicago, San Francisco, Manhattan, and Boston, and not back to where they came from.) The best place for intervention in production is the factory. (How sad that mass production is an apt metaphor for higher education.) Higher education is an obligatory passage point in the modern world—without a degree, life can be difficult (and it may be difficult with a degree, too). In social science theory, an obligatory passage point is essentially a node in a social network of actors--in the creation of federal policy, the House and the Senate are obligatory passage points; in approving drugs for use, the FDA is an get the gist. Therefore, one of the best chances the world stands for transformation is through the transformation of higher education. As students, I believe that we must demand an education that allows us to transform the structures that support unjust and ecologically degrading outcomes, not an education that keeps us entrenched in those structures. Indeed, that may be the best thing we as students can do for the next generation.

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