Archive for December 14, 2010
Alan kindly forwarded me this article (thanks!). Fish makes his point well, that students aren’t the “customers” but the “product,” and they are not the best judge of what they need from education. But the relentless monetization of higher education increasingly places them in that role, and places us in the role of providers of only that education that results in measurable monetary value. I particularly found striking the end of the piece — while the report that Fish is responding to is from England, the attitudes seem strongly American.
While Fish makes a terrific point, I wonder what the way forward is. We can’t turn back the clock and undo the choices made and attitudes developed over the last 30 years (the Bayh-Doyle Act is 30 years old this month). We developed Media Computation because, explicitly, we had to appeal to student interests to get them to engage with computer science. Maybe we shouldn’t have had to and maybe students should have studied computer science because it’s a great subject, but they don’t and we do. Now, within this worldview, how do we achieve the opportunity for all that Fish describes? How do we make sure that students learn what they need, and not just what they want?
The rhetoric of the report is superficially benign; its key phrase is “student choice”: “Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.” “Our recommendations . . . are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.” “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”
The obvious objection to this last declaration is, “No, they aren’t; judgment is what education is supposed to produce; if students possessed it at the get-go, there would be nothing for courses and programs to do.” But that objection would be entirely beside the point in the context of the assumption informing the report, the assumption that what students want to get from participating in higher education is money. Under the system the report proposes, government support of higher education in the form of block grants to universities (which are free to allocate funds as they see fit) would be replaced by monies given directly to matriculating students, who would then vote with their pocketbooks by choosing which courses to “invest” in.
But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.
One must admit that this view of value and the good life has a definite appeal. It will resonate with many not only in England but here in the United States. And to the extent it does, the privatization of higher education will advance apace and the days when a working-class Brit or (in my case) an immigrant’s son can wander into the groves of academe and emerge a political theorist or a Miltonist will recede into history and legend.
I enjoyed the interviews I heard with Sebastian Ruth, one of this year MacArther Fellow’s, who founded Community MusicWorks. While the story of his work is inspiring, I was also thinking about a possible analogy to computing. Ruth talked about how he wants children to own the music in their lives, to realize that they can create it, and not just consume it. In the below clips, he talks about the energy from the professionals working with the children. The interviewer then talks with one off the students in Community MusicWorks, who talks about the importance of music to him, even if he’s not going to be a professional musician.
We want children to be owners of the technology in their lives, too, and not just consumers. And it doesn’t matter if they’re going to be professional software developers — it’s still worthwhile to create and to feel empowered. Ruth’s story suggests that it’s powerful for the experts, too, working with the children.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why is there that disconnect? You were trained at a high level of musicianship and as you say typically that goes one way and it doesn’t connect to the community in most, especially in most urban areas. Why is that?
SEBASTIAN RUTH: That’s a good question. I think there has traditionally been this divide between performer musicians who become performers at a serious level and musicians who don’t make it as performers and therefore do work with community settings. And so this was a real experiment to say what is this energy that comes about when you bring together performers who are really striving for a very high level performance and a career of concertizing with a community and community life in a city such that working with the kids reinvigorates the performace that we do as professionals, and vice versa, and that we could bring a certain kind of energy to this community as performers and from our rehearsal and concert life.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what did that do for you and your friends?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: Well, going to what Sebastian hoped, is it showed us that we deserved music and that we deserved this, although our parents couldn’t pay for it that doesn’t mean that we didn’t deserve music. And it brought this world into our world and made it one, which is a great gift.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you are in college now. But you are not intending a serious music career, right?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: No, but.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, what?
KIRBY VASQUEZ: That doesn’t mean that music is not important to me and that I haven’t found other ways to make it into my life, whether it’s picking up the guitar or just always being very attentive to music. And I don’t plan on ever stopping to play the cello. It means a lot to me.