Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander


37 thoughts on “Corporatizing Education: A Justification

  1. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and while I’d need to take time to think about your vision of corporate colleges, I think to some degree I concur. I’ve been mulling ove and regretting that the apprenticeship system of the middle ages gave way to the industrial, assembly-line approach to teaching of the 19th century (modified by F. R. Leavis et al to incorporate teaching about the classics and English lit, etc.). While those that want to study philosophy and English lit should have that opportunity, I worry about our students who need to learn how to write in their fields and who are not being taught to do so because of the restrictions that Gen Ed puts on them in Quebec. I used to feel grateful that I can work in a college that allows me to teach literature to all students, but these days, I find myself looking at colleges in the other provinces and thinking how nice it would be to teach students to communicate effectively in their field of study and to know I am making a difference in their ability to succeed in the market place.

    By the way, a 2009 book, _Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology_ envisions an era when schools will become obsolete if they do not keep up with the education that is developing in other non-academic venues (workplace, online, etc…..). Your vision of corporate schools reminded me of some of what they see happening already.


  2. Maia: Thanks for that book recommendation; I will check it out, as I suspect it will be very pertinent to some of my research.

    You summarize my concern nicely when you say “While those that want to study philosophy and English lit should have that opportunity, I worry about our students who need to learn how to write in their fields…I used to feel grateful that I can work in a college that allows me to teach literature to all students, but these days, I find myself … thinking how nice it would be to teach students to communicate effectively in their field of study and to know I am making a difference in their ability to succeed in the market place.”

    I feel this particularly in my Child Studies course, where we are looking at literature that is directly pertinent to the field of childhood education (“What books should kids read?”) and incorporating theoretical writings in order to examine the “use” of childhood reading. It seems like a way to approach literature that highlights its relevance.

    I guess my concerns all come back to my feeling that I want to be useful. To me, that is the highest educational – and, for that matter, spiritual – aim.


  3. What literature, philosophy and the humanities teach is how to deal with abstract ideas. It is difficult to think in abstractions. The benefits are not always obvious. Technology is constantly changing and specific training becomes obsolete. I don’t think Apple,Blackberry , Bell or Samsung would want employees with such specialized training without the broad base that a regular school provides. As C.L.R. James once said, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The humanities are complex. Why Socrates, Patanjali, or Orunmila? They all lead to a greater WHY…which is as important as any technical knowledge.


    1. L: I agree. Such studies would have to be a part of any corporate university, and it would be up to educators, not technicians, to determine what such courses would include; as you say, a company wouldn’t want employees who know how to use a specific software but who are not good learners in general (as many employers of Flash programmers are now discovering…)


  4. Comment I’m posting on behalf of a reader:

    Your comments are very interesting. There are a number of large companies that have their own in-house programs which they label “X Co” University, usually for managers and seniors and individuals identified as worthy of being fast tracked for greater things (look up GE Crotonville) and many sponsor training programs at all levels be it in house or with outside institutions. These could probably be consolidated/reorganized along the lines you suggest. The ancient (and still going, albeit not so much) system of apprenticeship updated for use with modern technology and corporate co-operation sort of idea?

    However, I’d have some reservations about leaving too much of the post secondary education effort in the hands of the corporate world. Companies, for the most part, are created as investment vehicles for their shareholders (be they individuals, trust funds, pension plan sponsors, etc.) to improve their financial position. When economic times get rough, the belt tightening starts and a lot of the “discretionary” spending gets cut back or stopped altogether. State sponsored education programs are subject to the same ‘reviews’ but are far less likely to be subject to same degree of cyclical jolts.


    1. Reply to reader:
      The interests of corporations are definitely a concern. One question this raises for me: could participating in the establishment of educational institutions actually be good for corporate culture? Could it help the shareholders and other stakeholders see the corporate mission as one that is bigger than the bottom line? I would love to think so, but I have no idea.


  5. I love your rant! 😉 I enjoyed reading and could almost feel you typing extra fast as you put this post together. But…

    He’s right. Don’t justify.


    Sell it.

    I sell stuff. I have sold consulting, I have sold insurance, I have sold ice-cream, I have sold education and I have sold private jets.

    To sell and to justify are two totally distinct human activities. I believe that we shouldn’t need to justify to the kids why they should study humanities, but we do need to sell them on it. We need their active engagement for the learning to happen. We can’t inject wisdom into the brain of a person who does not want it.

    To sell is to help them see a better quality in their lives if they can make use of the tool. To justify… smacks of desperation. In that I agree with your academic friend above – only those who also doubt the solidity of their position engage in justification.

    So, Why study the humanities? Or more to the point, why should a 10 year old, 13 year old or 17 year old study them?

    If you understand what really motivates people, what really constitutes quality of life and can serve people in a way that increases their experience of quality of life, you can build a great life for yourself and for those around you.

    * Engineers can be hired.
    * Creativity can be hired/outsourced.
    * Finance you can learn along the way.
    * Marketing is about getting out and asking questions.
    * Selling is about describing the customer’s current pain in their own words.
    * Persistance and discipline is character – if you don’t have it, you are not going to learn it at school so not a relevant decision factor.

    Understanding human purpose and quality of life – this is the non-delegate-able part of an human life.

    Study Humanities.

    P.S. There is one **MAJOR** challenge to overcome…

    I have found (personal experience) most humanities teachers to be poor teachers. It is all about the reading and searching for yourself through the great novels, great histories, great lives – but somehow many more poor teachers exist in the humanities space. There are some great ones, but the variance is much greater than in more analytical, scientific subjects.


    1. Conor: I wasn’t even thinking of it as a rant! I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. Your observation that “most humanities teachers are poor teachers” is relevant, but I’m not sure I’d agree that this is less true in other disciplines; good teaching seems to be hard to come by in every area of endeavour, especially in higher education.


  6. Please, please take a look at ALEC, and how a few corporations are using their influence on congressmen to direct public education toward a very narrow definition of reform. The question, btw, is absolutely relevant, Fish and Menand simply don’t know how to answer it. M


  7. I think that while humanities courses may benefit your career and earning power somewhere along the line, there is a bigger picture. We live in a democracy, and if we have any hopes of keeping it a democracy, then we the citizens of that democracy need to take it upon ourselves to become educated people with critical faculties that will enable us to make good decisions as a body politic.

    I think we’ve lost sight of the fact (or we don’t clearly communicate the fact) that crucial mental faculties are developed indirectly. The reason you take calculus in high school isn’t because someday you’re really going to be glad you know how to calculate the area of a curve, it’s because learning how to do so trains your mind to think analytically to handle abstracts, and to work with formulas. Same goes for Herbert poems. Intrinsic value’s not the point, the point is to be able to answer questions like “what is he saying? how is he saying it? has anyone else said it before?” among others. Frankly, I wish more people would devote themselves to the study of poetry, simply because then they could see through the mass media political rhetoric that’s slung about so profusely these days.

    You probably don’t need humanities to be a factory worker or mid-level technician (or manager) in a corporation. You absolutely do need humanities to be a responsible citizen in the country whose economic system, based on classical/philosophical foundations, made those jobs possible.


    1. Wolichili:
      I agree with much of what you say here. My some of my concerns are reflected in Maia’s comment above. Many of my students don’t have the basic level of literacy necessary to BEGIN to read and understand a Herbert poem, even with the aid of a teacher. As we listened to Fish dissect the poem yesterday, even his impassioned, articulate and humorous analysis was clearly lost on many of the students. They tuned out. They looked at one another and shrugged. In some cases, this is because they are lazy, but in many cases they are unable to understand, and unable to understand why they should TRY to understand. Perhaps if we gave them texts that seemed immediately relevant to them, and explained their relevance, they would see why, and would be able to connect? Can they be trained to think analytically by reading articles from intelligent business magazines like The Economist or watching intelligent entertainment like The Simpsons? I would say yes, but I might not be seeing the whole picture.


      1. Great points. If we keep the end goal in mind — and recognize that the only way to get there may be indirectly — I don’t see why we need to be married to the same tools that got people to those goals 100 years ago. People like Fish want you to study Herbert because they studied Herbert and found it amazing and brilliant. But that’s not teaching; that’s geeking out.

        Use the Simpsons. Use Calvin & Hobbes. Use whatever works!


        1. Totally! I sometimes have conversations with teachers where they say, “But I love Hamlet! Isn’t there a place for me, someone who just wants to go into the classroom and transmit my love of Hamlet?”
          I always say, “Of course!” But I’m lying when I say it. I don’t think a teacher’s goal should be to demonstrate that he/she loves Hamlet and wants the students to love it to. I think a teacher’s goal is to determine, to her best ability, what the students need to learn. Then she can ask herself, “Can my students learn this from Hamlet?” Not “is it POSSIBLE to learn this from Hamlet,” but, “can these students sitting in front of me learn it from Hamlet?” If not, then love Hamlet on your own time. If they need certain skills first, it is your job to help them acquire those skills, and then, if you have time for Hamlet, awesome.


      2. It is possible you might benefit from reading some really good anthropology. Culture provides what it expects of its members. One cannot learn from The Economist or The Simpsons (lovely that you pair these) what one learns from Herbert–learns from working toward the understanding of a Herbert poem, that is trying to understand the world of Herbert in order to understand the language of Herbert. To read Herbert you must translate yourself into another place and time and leave, as best you can, the “you” of “now” behind. This is what the best anthropology seeks to do. Perhaps, if you have the time and interest, start with Edward Tylor (1881).

        But leaving all of that aside, all of education (and especially “higher” education) is corporate. That is, it is its own corporate entity and it has its own corporate interest. Ultimately, though, it serves what all corporate interests serve in a Western commercial economy–money.

        It is not such a great idea to foster the understanding, not to mention empathy, if you intend to simply have humans as resources who will serve the economic abstraction of money.

        We CAN all learn to read Herbert, and we CAN all do it much earlier than college. We have chosen other values and other gods (monsters). Our culture chooses to call this “classic” literature and thus turns it into an monument and obelisk to something called “the past.” We are the future, and the past only slows us down.

        Now, there’s an idea…


  8. First, Stanley Fish has been roundly debunked for not understanding how university finances actually work. A roundup of those issues here.

    One of the star articles here:

    Next, I look forward to the education in lung health that Phillip Morris Institute would provide. Or the deep, rigorous and practical understanding of organizational safety measures and accountability, or of the chemical effects of oil on ecosystems that Exxon U would instill. The attention to the interrelationship of environment, air quality, and human development that GE College could bring to young people, let alone their “understand fracking” course! I can only imagine what Monsanto has to share with its students about sustainability, or what tasty samples and recipes General Foods’ nutrition class will offer! Oh, I know, maybe we could have the financial corporations teach kids about financial responsibility?

    Look. Corporations have no interest in teaching things that are not directly related to their bottom line –in fact publicly held corporations are required by law NOT to invest in such things. Meanwhile corporations also have no interest in revealing any potentially negative truths about things that ARE related to their bottom line. So what does that leave as courses of study that could be relied on?

    Seriously, what is it about corporations that you think make them well-suited, as institutions, to the actual management and responsibility of education? Specifically, what have corporations done that make you think they could be trusted in this?

    What a collapse of all the ideals that a public education system was founded to support. You do understand that it’s not like public education is suffering because it was unworkable, but that there has been a sustained campaign to defund and destroy it, while money (including tax money) continues to be spent on all kinds of projects that have no direct benefit to the public and also often involve killing people or bailing out these corporations? If you want to redistribute those public resources back from corporations who have received so much of them, what exactly induces you to trust corporations to be in charge of their allocation? Since neither their internal structure nor their profit motive can benefit from it?


    1. There is no question that asking corporations to provide education is problematic. It would certainly not make sense to eliminate public institutions and put all education in the hands of corporations. It would also not make sense to support corporate universities with public funds. On the contrary, in an ideal world, corporations would subsidize students who want to attend their colleges, in order to contribute to the development of a work force that meets their needs.

      As a friend pointed out, such institutions already exist: she gave the example of GM’s Kettering University. I knew nothing about it until she mentioned it, but I’m now interested to find out what kind of education its students receive.

      Any institution has biases, and it is up to the media and the public, as well as a responsible government (a long shot, perhaps) to bring those biases to light. Consider all the religious universities that exist; they also promote values that many of us consider dangerous. Many who attend and support them would also say that they provide a superb education in many areas.

      I don’t disagree with the content of the questions you raise, but the spirit of “what have corporations done that make you think they could be trusted in this?” is unnecessarily aggressive. I am asking a question; your points could be made with a simple, “I don’t think corporations should be trusted in these matters,” and some explanations as to why. You might want to look to some other comments in this thread as examples.


      1. (same commenter as before) I see no point in a “what if the world was flat” kind of open-mindedness, and that attitude is actually harmful because it normalizes some pretty messed up things. the fact that it does so in “nice” language means it is more likely to e taken seriously, when actually you are normalizing and minimizing some pretty glaring and harmful generalizations.

        While there are complexities in any institution – the function of corporations is pretty much diametrically opposed (and again, by law, for publicly held companies) to that of mass education, especially public education serving the population you say you are concerned about.

        What you are suggesting is setting the fox to guard the henhouse. I am not particularly interested in investigating the quality of the fox’s security system, because the fox’s interest is by definition in opposition to those of the chickens. I think it is pernicious to minimize that fact.

        The question of religious education is interesting, the structural pressures on religious schools may be a bit broader than the profit motive and maximization of shareholder value (I would have to know a bit more about how those institutions are managed). However, I’m comfortable saying I don’t want creationism taught in a science class – rather than investigating the quality of the scientific method as demonstrated by creationism in a science class.

        But really, my questions are sincere – I mean, your argument seems to be that corporations’ biases would be held in check by the government? Again, what examples of government regulation of corporate power makes you hopeful about this? And if there aren’t any examples, how can you be making a serious suggestion?

        In addition it is depressing to me that a teacher who cares about learning would suggest that perhaps the goal of public education of poor and working class people should be abandoned for system of tiered education that simply trains poor people to be good employees. That has been tried before. It reinforces an inheritable and rigid class system that some countries begun with some success to move away from, until the upheaval of social classes proved too threatening. There is evidence for broad access to public education (including the humanities) doing these things in a systematic way, within living memory.

        Lastly, there are tones and tones. The idea you put forth that certain kinds of learning are just not suited for certain kinds of people, may be couched in the gentlest of language, but it feels like kind of a spit in the face to a lot of people – both those who have dedicated their lives to working in (and fighting for) public education and those who have had their lives turned around by it.


        1. No-one is suggesting that children’s education be pre-determined by their family income or race. There are plenty of middle class students who are just as turned off by continued emphasis on interpreting literature as some lower-income kids are. What’s being suggested is that IF you are faced with a student who resists reading/analyzing literature, and who is old enough to have formed her/his own preferences for learning other things, or for working instead of going to school, then don’t try to force that student down the typical classical education/college prep path, because a) it is unlikely to work; and b) it is extremely bossy and arrogant to tell students that they have to like what you’re teaching or else they are losers.


          1. I have been trying to understand the criteria for tracking students into these non-literature schools, and based on the OP it seemed to have to do with lack of access to resources, language problems, etc: again, she said

            “my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, ”

            How do you know whether someone is old enough to have formed preferences or whether they are suffering from the things the post was talking about in that quote? And how do you think preferences get formed anyway? doesn’t teaching have something to do with that?

            I surely agree that telling students they have to like what you teach them would be bossy, but is that really a big problem? Is that the biggest problem facing students in lit classes today? I don’t think so. I do agree with the post that resources have something to do with it, I just disagree with the proposed response..


        2. This is exactly what I was thinking when I read Siobhan’s post. We should be extremely cautious of, if not be averse to corporatizing education. Education should be as objective and independent as possible. There might be other ways to achieve what Siobhan is referring to: tailoring to students’ needs.


  9. Corporations would excel at applied training useful for their purposes. This is the same as how construction companies collaborate with unions to run apprenticeships. Beyond that, I would not trust them to do a good (or even any) job with humanities/social science or even pure science.

    Now, the problem that you pointed to at the beginning of your post is real; students are being asked to plough through classes that they are unprepared for and not interested in, because they are required if they want a degree. I think the answer might be that they do have to keep working on their writing skills if they want a BA degree and the jobs that truly require writing, but the context should be business or technical writing, or even current events, not literature. This could be done in the CEGEPs as easily as in the corporations, or more easily.

    Anyone can see that past early teen years, many students not only don’t enjoy analyzing literature, they actively resist it. On top of that, many more students should be able to do an applied degree with minimal course work unrelated to their occupational goals. More of the 2-year degrees should be terminal. I truly believe that by the time students are 18 or 19, they should demonstrate both motivation and acceptable reading and writing skills in order to take non occupation-related courses. Everyone would be happier, and there would be far less failure and drop-out from our post-secodary institutions.


    1. EB: I think the fundamental thing we agree on here is a respect for the student’s goals and values, especially once she is an adult. One commenter above asserts that acknowledging that a particular student doesn’t have the basic skills or motivation necessary to accomplish certain tasks, like analyzing difficult poetry, is “a spit in the face” to many people, including the student. This is only true if I believe that my values and goals are superior to the student’s, and that she is less of a person if she doesn’t do or learn the things important to me. If I value what the student wants, and how the student wants to spend her time, money and intellectual energy, then I temper my professional judgement with that knowledge, and provide paths that fulfill the student’s objectives and needs.


      1. Exactly, Siobhan. My nephew who has known since he was 7 that he wanted to repair motorcycles for a living (and who now does so, successfully) was thought to be a bad and disengaged student all the way through school. The school, having only one standard by which to assess students (an academic standard), could not see beyond his resistance to the standart curriculum. Fortunately for him, his parents and his nearby community COULD see beyond that standard, and he never believed that he was inadequate just because the curriculum the schools handed him was not one that fit his talents.


  10. It is a spit in the face to students to assume you know what they are ultimately suited for, to assume that you know what their limits are as if they are innate and fixed (and determined primarily by class, in your initial example).

    “my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, ”

    That looks like you are saying “poor people – or immigrants- aren’t meant to study literature.”

    It quite arrogant and condescending to assume that based on your encounter with a student at a particular moment in their life you know what they are ultimately capable of. To play out your idea further (of course this has already been tried) –at what point will students reveal this inborn knowledge of what they want to be? I find it deeply disturbing that we are talking about people as having innate talents that just need to be recognized and then they can be sorted into the appropriate career path, starting at age 19 (or age 7!). Some 7-year-olds want to be racecar drivers. Should we just enroll them in Nascar U?

    I am comfortable with the idea that I know best when I say that that everyone has the capability to engage with literature and find some meaning in it. That doesn’t mean I get to decide which literature will appeal to which student, that *would* be arrogant. But the above discussion very odd – people here seem to be taking on faith a very old-fashioned idea indeed, that there is one category of “literature” which if students don’t respond to, shows those students are intrinsically not suited for studying literature. Are we really so sure that if a student doesn’t like one set of readings that means they are not suited for reading?

    It seems like many people are ignoring the long tradition of critiquing the canon. I know Fish would like to ignore it, but it still deserves attention, particularly as that critique comes from precisely the communities that are also described by your initial characterization of your students. Poor, non-english-speaking, immigrant, indigenous etc.

    Does it really need to be said that literature doesn’t only mean 19th century white European authors? And that different students respond differently to different authors?
    Perhaps if a student dislikes or is bored by Herbert, rather than concluding that they are not literary, not meant to study the stuff at all and should go to trade school, perhaps we could explore whether they might better respond to Maria Campbell, Chinua Achebe, Emily Pauline Johnson, Brand, Mahfouz, Austin Clarke, Lorde, Étienne, Allende, Shikibu, etc etc.

    You can do the work of trying to find a way to make literature relevant to students in your classroom, or you can write off a whole group of people as if they are categorically unsuited to studying literature. I don’t see the latter approach as particularly new, and I do see it as insulting to your students. And the approach is *more dangerous* for being made in a calm, reasonable tone that masks the inherent total conservatism (innate capabilities & social sorting?) and anti-education (some people can’t learn/ teaching means just talking to those who already get it) implications.


    1. It would be a spit in the face to think that first-graders., any first graders, are not meant for academic learning. And to say that of 12 year-olds, or 16-year olds (though by then, believe me, many are indicating with their words and their actions that there is something else they prefer to commit to). I agree that varied literature is a must (and not just for poor or minority kids; for all kids). But when students come to CEGEP who are barely able to read 6th grade material, and who don’t have all the time in the world to catch up, and when we know that there is a real opportunity cost to insisting on analyzing literature when there are so many other worthwhile things to study — then, it is not a spit in the face to suggest that the student explore other types of learning.


      1. But that suggestion isn’t made in a vacuum. You have just named some of the reasons people aren’t responding to literature: that they haven’t had access to educational resources. What is the cause of that lack of access? Why not address that? And why would you assume they don’t deserve that support or that we shouldn’t fight for that?

        If the problem is that some people are just naturally unsuited to literature or other “non-practical” education, that’s one thing. If it’s that students suffer from a lack of instruction and resources at a younger age, that’s another. Both have been suggested. The first is offensive on its face. the second is offensive in its normalization of a system which systematically and consciously disadvantages these students.

        Calling it “realism” doesn’t reflect the fact that realistically (historically, empirically) societies have had different priorities at different times, and the reason they changed is because people and organizations fought to change them. The fights to increase access to resources deserve more honor and respect than they are getting here. Rather than their being wished away as though it is realistic to assume nobody ever changed anything and could never do it.

        I suggest that rather than addressing the problem of lack of resources by creating separate, class and race-based tiers of education, we address the problem of lack of resources through fighting to change the allocation of resources. If its a lack of students’ cultural resonance with a eurocentric canon (or eurocentric or elitist teaching styles) that can be re-developed by teachers who learn to do so, we do have some power in that arena (and ought to organize to protect it). If students suffer from a lack of training and support earlier, that suggests that teachers and everyone else should be involved in the fight to support public education (as well as immigration reform, social supports for the poor/working class, etc). Simply abandoning that fight to the “realistic” idea that corporations own us all anyway is only going to appease people already comfortable enough in the system so that it is not painful for them, it’s not going to help anyone on the bottom any more, and would foreclose the possibility that their situation could ever improve. I can think of nothing more insulting than that.


        1. Anonymous: Your long comments suggest that you have more than enough thoughts on these matters to go write some blog posts of your own, on your own blog, rather than continuing to fill this space. I will not be approving any more anonymous comments, and may soon close comments on this post if it seems clear you haven’t taken the hint. We have heard you. Please move on.


  11. I’m not sure that corporations are the right agents to entrust with education. However, I will assert that other cultures in our world have surpassed the American public education system’s results by sorting students at 8th grade into ‘career paths’ for which they show a natural ability.
    This rubs me wrong only because I’ve been indoctrinated into the independent vein of thinking that many Americans idealize (or is that idolize?) but that isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the individual or society.
    I work in public education and I see many students who are uninterested in reading because they have been entertained by electronic gadgets since they were old enough to interact with one. I don’t see this going away. Most 12 year olds I work with believe that if they lost their cell phone their life would be over. I grew up reading a book under the covers by flashlight. I like my iPad (I’m using it right now) but I’d still rather read a book than play a computer game. Is this cultural? Is this generational?
    Our public education system isn’t turning out educated people ready for the responsibilities of citizenship (I appreciated that comment btw) and it needs to be changed. I think Siobhan asks some questions that are relevant and should be considered as we seriously rethink the direction America’s public educational system is headed. In case you’re wondering, it’s headed out of being competitive on a global scale (but private schools and universities can still compete in that market).
    I agree that requiring humanities at college level to earn a degree might be an out-dated practice.


    1. Sharon: I’ve been intrigued by the Swiss system, which apparently does the kind of streaming you mention. People who have worked in the system have told me that it is quite easy to learn a trade in late high school and then to transition to university later if one wishes. I should do some research on this.


      1. Our system is based on the idea that anyone can change course in life at any point. That is why we continue to offer (force) students to take courses in all the liberal arts disciplines that aim them towards a 4-year degree right up through their late teen years (or much later, in the case of those returning to school after many years). And that idea is correct, for some people. It’s definitly correct if they have the basic math, reading, and writing skills it takes to pass those varied liberal arts courses. But it’s not a realistic idea for students whose basic skills are too far behind, OR for those who don’t want the content of the classes. In the US, it’s complicated by our (justified) fear that if we offer non-college options to students, too many who end up bypassing college will be from minority groups. And I can assure you that a disproportionate number of them will also be males of all races; at the college level there is already a lack of males in every discipline except the highly technical ones like Computer Science.


  12. I think the whole purpose of a higher education is being overlooked. I don’t think teachers in the Humanities are better or worse than teachers in other disciplines. There are no easy instant pills for an instant education and learning is work. Reading Shakespeare is work. This thread reminds me of the Karate Kid. See Link
    Wax on! Wax off!!!


  13. BVULCANIUS – really like set up of the Dutch education system and couldn’t agree more with your view that corporatizing is definitely not the answer as it is almost impossible to maintain objectivity in education with the corporates driving it. If anything, the Internet and the recent trends in education suggest a movement towards more democracy of choice. One way of overcoming issues posed by the current education system is to provide relevant life skills such as problem solving to students to help them set and gain higher achievement goals. Humanities are an ideal choice for learning critical thinking skills and the key role of the teacher is helping students find out how Hamlet is relevant to them.


  14. Here in the U.S. we have these little problems called cease and desist letters, and companies that set up these colleges would probably use these a whole lot. I mean they did train the student so that they could work there. I think the problems with the humanities is that we get so caught up in the story that we forget why the person wrote it in the first place. Maybe Orson Wells ought to be taught in school. Maybe Baseball literature ought to be about in a lecture or two. I mean the stuff that we do teach students is so narrow now. We teach them how to write, what to write, and being a student myself this year in a college, that just isn’t completely what we should be doing. I feel like the humanities has its place in sparking dreams, in realigning past dreams with the now future hopes, and also they tell a little personal history for all of us. Charles Dickens is a great example of that. He, like Oliver Twist, was a poor boy. There are other numerous things that he bases his character Oliver off of in his childhood, but maybe his example of writing gives somebody the boost they need to become an excellent craftsman of words. I also feel like it can give different angles of history, which can help students learn to really broaden their spectrum of thinking.

    I also remember the speech that Joe gives Pip in Great Expectations:

    `Well, Pip,’ said Joe, `be it so or be it son’t, you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommon one, I should hope! The king upon his throne, with his crown upon his ‘ed, can’t sit and write his acts of Parliament in print, without having begun, when he were a unpromoted Prince, with the alphabet — Ah!’ added Joe, with a shake of the head that was full of meaning, `and begun at A too, and worked his way to Z. And I know what that is to do, though I can’t say I’ve exactly done it.’

    There was some hope in this piece of wisdom, and it rather encouraged me.

    `Whether common ones as to callings and earnings,’ pursued Joe, reflectively, `mightn’t be the better of continuing for to keep company with common ones, instead of going out to play with oncommon ones …

    But here is where I disagree with you. Say a now employee wants to become a businessman? Now instead of being able to go into any business, he may have to go get a new degree, because it doesn’t work the same in two different companies. Say he’s switching from a telephone company to an Architecture firm, wouldn’t it be nicer to have met some people in your college experience that have done both? another thing would be that Articulated Agreements in the U.S. are hard to come by within the collegiate system itself, let alone two companies that are competing for a bigger share of the market.


  15. Sorry for the long comment above. Its just when I have ideas, I have them, and they flow rather vigorously out. I think it is because of your great writing skills, they spark ideas!


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