Archive for July, 2013

Education And Democracy

July 16, 2013

July 15, 2013 found a short essay by Timothy Wilson entitled The Psychology of Success: Helping Students Achieve appearing online. LiveScience.com ran it as an OpEd. Mr. Wilson is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia (did you really think they would run an OpEd by just any Timothy Wilson?). It is interesting to note the use of the word “success” in the title in light of this blog’s previous posting interrogating Jeb Bush’s imagined meaning of “success”. Mr. Bush obviously eschews “helping” in connection with “succeeding”, since success should be coupled with self-reliance, i.e. the individual providing for their own old age retirement, feeding themselves, and providing themselves with housing, health care, and the means of accomplishing all this (presumably through a self-provided education). Of course, that’s where the social comes in, education, as education is extensively (but not completely) a social interaction. Like it or not we all want our big rig drivers who hurtle down the highway at 75 mph to be educated in the handling of these behemoths. We share the road that none of us built individually. Mr. Wilson’s essay is a celebration of the efficacy of social psychology in “helping” folks achieve an education. Within the context of this OpEd, the underlying (unquestioned) assumption is that education is a task (like tying one’s shoes) that needs to be accomplished, that can be accomplished, that is accomplished. Education is taken as a behavior (the stuff of psychology) which therefore can be modified since, as Mr. Wilson says, that is “how the mind works”. Mr. Wilson celebrates turning students on to science and math study, overcoming math anxiety, etc. By working through certain scientifically informed methodologies determined and administered by social psychologists, behavior can be modified to achieve desired outcomes – more scientists, mathematicians, engineers to meet the demands of these technologically driven times.

In a book entitled The Gleam Of Light (2005), Naoko Saito brings together three loosely connected thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey and Stanley Cavell, to consider education and democracy. Emerson is remembered as a poet and philosopher, Dewey as only the latter and Cavell is contemporary so you can preface him with whatever works for you – where he may have taught, as philosopher, movie/culture critic, etc. (contemporary framing never does come across quite the same as historical framing. At what point does it change?). As Saito points out, for these folks, philosophy is considered as the “education of grown-ups”. Humanities and poetry are rather disparaged today in terms of making a contribution to education within our technological wonderland. After all, they post an abysmal track record of landing a job when emphasized as a strength on a job resume’. For Emerson et al. education dovetails with morality. “it puts weight on the question, “How do we live?”” (pg. 51). Philosophy and poetry, the humanities and arts, frequently address this very question, and often attempt to proffer an answer. Unseen, or rather, going unmentioned in Mr. Wilson’s OpEd essay is the abdication of democracy in what he celebrates. The social psychologist functions essentially as a handler or facilitator to satisfy some ultimate need or demand. This role of intermediary differs greatly from that of what previously fell within the field of teaching, the teacher. Need a chemical engineer, or systems analyst? We can do that. We can accomplish the task of modifying behavior/performance to accommodate any need or demand. It all begs the question “who has the need, who is making the demand?” which in turn establishes a hierarchy – the one with the need, the broker who will accommodate the need and satisfy the demand, and the one utilized to satisfy that demand, whose behavior is influenced to become the accomplishment, the success. (Kind of sounds like what makes for success in today’s political economy – jobs creator, temporary agency, job temps – doesn’t it?) This differs greatly from the initiative of education as essential to living within a democracy, to an outlook, a way of living that is centered on democracy originally promoted by Emerson, considered by Dewey, and revisited by Cavell (and brought together by Saito!). “Oh, it’s only a tool, to be used as needed.” is the reply of technology driven learning whenever its value/validity is questioned. The same justification could be given by those celebrating social psychology’s role in today’s education process. But can the same methodology produce a democratic populace? A knowledgeable, critical, informed electorate that is self-reliant in its self-governing?

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Pepsi And Peaches

July 7, 2013

The 4th of July holiday week has just passed. It would have been difficult for someone to not notice the special offer ads run by the local mega food retailers, “4 twelve packs of Pepsi for $10” (with membership at Kroger or Giant Eagle. Walmart will match any advertised price brought in with ad). Over the weekend I noticed several farmer’s market produce stands offering a carton of 4 gorgeous peaches for $5. You don’t need Karl Rove to help you do the equation: eight peaches equal forty eight 12 oz. cans of Pepsi (576 ounces of refreshment). Let that sink in for a moment. OK, time’s up! What springs to mind? Oh yeah, labor costs. We all know the capitalist alibi: labor costs drive prices up, eventually putting either jobs or the enterprise that sells the product out of work. The formula is simple and drilled into every sixth grader with their lessons on how to count (no, not the ABC’s kind but how to count money, usually other people’s money). So Pepsi will stay in business and grow, and eventually peaches will, well, disappear. Pepsi will do so by keeping production costs down (and some other unmentionables). This is where the sixth graders are left in the dark. Pepsi will keep its costs down by relying on automation to eliminate its labor (and some other unmentionables). More automated systems equals less human labor costs. In doing so Pepsi will be called a “jobs creator” when it opens or renovates a new production facility that will be more “cost effective” (automated) than the previous. As a “jobs creator” it will be entitled to real estate tax credits, income tax cuts, as well as other “community development” benefits and perks. Peaches, on the other hand, are a totally different economy. Initial start-up investment is substantial, competition with land values as well as continuous reliance on weather and environment, coupled with heavy reliance on human labor make it a primitive economic model for success. Although real people will really be working, it will not qualify as a “jobs creator” (unless it is subsidized and subsumed within some other unmentionables). In the end it relies on growth, but not the economic kind.

Over the weekend PBS televised what looked to be an archived edition of The Human Parade with Jay Nordinger interviewing Jeb Bush. No matter. Governor Bush came off very presidential. His promotion of the conservative economic agenda was totally patriotic. He aspired to create success for America, and Americans. He lauded Marco Rubio for being willing to promote the reduction/elimination of Social Security and elimination/reduction of other social welfare programs (subsidized unmentionables). Also he presented a “how” on immigration: along with securing the borders, allow immediate citizenship for PHD’s entering the country as well as hard working entrepreneurs (NOT the hungry huddled masses yearning to be free, but those arriving with lots of capital- like Rupert Murdoch). This is where the sixth grade symposium on counting doesn’t do those who made it to the seventh grade much good. Weird news coming out of the various government and non-government bean counters: higher education costs are getting, well, higher. Those graduating are either unemployed or having to settle for work that is way below their degree capacity, i.e. Master’s doing minimum high school degree level work, etc. America currently has a lot of well-educated folks (who owe an awful lot of money for getting that degree). Karl Rove math aside, success for America might mean including them. But that brings us back to Pepsi and peaches. Just what does success mean if Americans are insecure in their old age and retirement, if Americans cannot afford to admit to themselves (or others) that they are ill or injured, if education is considered a supplement to learning how to count (other people’s money), and if, when hungry, most Americans will need to choose Pepsi over peaches?