Saturday, July 12, 2014

Those ivory tower perfessers

In the midst of a discussion over on Facebook, regarding the value and purpose of education, some commenters expressed views suggesting that they believe that the purpose of education is preparation for a job or jobs. There was also, the usual American folk notion of higher education being dominated by "liberals" who spend their class time "indoctrinating" students into particular "ideologies," mostly of course leftist (rightwing or conservative views are not, of course, "ideologies").  A number of misconceptions about the nature, purpose, and content of higher education emerged, and I promised to take it seriously and attempt to address some of the issues raised.  Only the gods know why...

So to begin with, here are a couple of his statements, for context (my emphasis; original spelling retained):

There are way to many kids that are wasting their time and money on college courses that will never provide them a living but rather only serve to anchor them with debt and destructive ideologies
The skilled trades offer a good living to people. For the most part a young person can earn money while learning useful skills in the trades and they don't have to spend the rest of their lives paying interest on tuition. 
There's obviously a confusion here of education and training.  This is not surprising. In fact, it's being encouraged all over the country (perhaps the world), in that universities, which are supposed to be about education, feel more and more pressure under a business-model regime of evaluation that emphasizes preparation for jobs at the expense of education for life as a citizen, something that should properly be the realm of training colleges and other such programs.

We see it also in the false dichotomy of "humanities" versus the so-called "STEM" disciplines: science, technology, engineering, mathematics.  These latter, supposedly, prepare people for actual work, but what can an English or Philosophy major do?  "Jobs" are what it's all about in a world increasingly subjugated to the ruthless regime of predatory capitalism.  But I digress...

There was also plenty of name-calling intended to put me down: "ivory tower perfesser," "liberal," "socialist," even "douchebag." Setting aside the last, it became clear that these folks were expressing a pretty wide-ranging suspicion of, and disdain for (one might say hatred of) higher education in the US.  They seemed to think that calling someone out as a "professor" or "liberal" was shaming, and I suppose given the nature of US culture I can't blame them for thinking that. We've long been a sort of "know-nothing" society.  If ignorance is bliss, America must be in a near-permanent state of ecstasy.

Anyway, there was one question that I thought I might take seriously and try to respond to (again, my emphasis):
Being educated is an excellent choice for many people but it shouldn't have to come with their professor's favorite ideology, right or left. Unless it's a political science class, philosophy or something similar what is the purpose of mixing political doctrine with pertinent course work?
One issue here has to do with the "pertinence" of knowledge about human political behavior. As an anthropologist, when I teach a course that covers human culture, I am compelled to teach about as many aspects of culture as I can fit into a semester: subsistence patterns, kinship and descent, marriage and family, economics, religion; the usual list of things we do in any introductory course. And of course, politics.  For anthropologists, this is the part of our culture that encompasses the production, distribution, and consumption of power, both within and between social groups.  When I teach, I explore some of the cultural adaptations that humans have made to these ends: how we have organized ourselves into various kinds of groups; the degree to which power is spread among the members of these groups, from being relatively egalitarian to highly stratified; how we invest power in leaders within these groups; how power is exercised between groups (war, etc.); and so on. 

In addition, politics is really not separable from other aspects of culture. We know that there are patterns that emerge between politically small-scale societies and the ways they produce their food, the kinds of leaders they have, the kinds of economic behaviors they exhibit, even the forms of religion they tend to practice.  Anthropologists see all this holistically, as an integrated web created by humans to help us survive.  So, because politics is so important to our ways of being, it is highly "pertinent" to our understanding of overall human culture.

But here's the rub. In our culture (as in some others, I believe) many people see teaching about something as equivalent to "indoctrination" in that something. I'll give two examples from my own teaching.

First example: I teach about human evolution. I make it very clear that in my biological anthropology course, I do not take seriously "creationism" or "intelligent design" or any other religion based explanations for humanity. I try to make it clear, also, that if there are any students in the class who think God created the World in 4004 BC, they are free to do so.  However, and this is the point: they are not free to expect that I will count their answer correct on a test asking for the age of the Earth.  They have to learn the material to pass the course.  After that, they can keep believing whatever they want.  Obviously, I'd prefer to discover that I had influenced their thinking, but that can't always happen, nor perhaps should it.

Second example: I teach about religion. I am, personally, an atheist, and I don't mind them knowing that. I also - and I do everything I can to let them know this - believe that religion can be a marvelous, sometimes even awe-inspiring and beautiful, manifestation of human creativity. I talk about the various forms of religions humans have created.  I use the term cult for all religious systems (individualistic, shamanistic, communal, ecclesiastic- as one way of thinking about them) in an effort to minimize their ethnocentrism, the idea that one religion or another might be the "real" or "right" one.  Frequently I give them a case study lecture on Haitian Vodoun, a great example of a syncretic religion that ties together West African and European religious ideas as well as bringing together other issues such as imperialism, slavery, and so on. As with evolution, I might ask them to know a few things about Vodoun, such as which spirit is associated with the Catholic Virgin Mary (Ezili) or who is the Guardian of the Crossroads (Baron Samdi). 

And here's what happens sometimes: students confuse learning about something with being forced to believe something.  I actually once had a student complain on their evaluation of me that I was trying to "convert them to Voodoo."  Similar things have happened in reaction to my lectures on politics. I show them other political systems, and I try to give them the all-too-rare objective understanding of our system here at home. I try to debunk the pervasive mythologies that surround terms like "capitalism" and "socialism" and "communism," and I try to talk honestly about these things.  As with evolution and religion, I make it clear that I am not trying to "convert" them to anything except critical thinking and understanding.

Which, I fervently hope, might make them better citizens, whatever "jobs" they end up doing.


  1. Gee, you sound like an anthropology professor! Well said, as usual. We use the same approach. I admit that I do kinda sorta push the Flying Spaghetti Monster in class.

  2. And I am "honored" to have known you as a colleague and friend all these years...and to have contributed to your meaningful dialogue via linkages to those whom made the given ignorant comments in your debate. May they learn from what you have written here. Sadly, I fear not, as they would not set foot into a college classroom with "socialist prefesers."


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