Emancipating education: a global week of action

By Jonathan Katz

This month the International Student Movement is calling for a Global Week of Action (Apr. 20-29) organized loosely around the idea of “Emancipating Education for All.” This call to emancipate education itself brings to mind two concerns I have about schools: the cost of education and the way it is sold and the redefinition of learning itself in institutional terms.

Despite the perennial raise in tuition that students face all across the country, there has been little effort from education leaders and politicians to keep schools open to working-class students. Macalester is just one guilty party in a long list of schools that have started endorsing policies that subtly, yet effectively eliminate class difference on campus.
The switch from “need-blind” to “need-aware” policies has meant that, when it comes down to the wire, the school would rather accept students of means; once a school reaches the critical mass necessary to call itself diverse, instead of continuing to work to reach more diversity, it sells itself as a better place of learning for the wealthy and the white because it is diverse. Schools such as ours, even as they occupy the role of an NGO, are profit-driven organizations, and to this end, recruiting students from wealthy backgrounds means potentially greater alumni contributions.

More alumni contributions mean more prestige, and more prestige then turns back into more profit from an increasingly posh pool of incoming students who want to purchase a better-looking resume. The motion is circular for a profit-driven college.

For the students who can’t afford the already absurd price ($46,942) the future is bleak, here and elsewhere. So long as schools are driven by profit and class intersects with race, they will find a continued need to create a mostly homogeneous student body, and then be struck by how “strange” it is that diversity is down for reasons other than the homogenization that occurs before students ever get to school (“RA applications up from last year’s low numbers,” Mar. 27)
Schools, as institutions, also commandeer what it means to learn. The most ubiquitous cliché students hear is that “The most important thing you’ll learn at school won’t be learned in a classroom.” While it is certainly true, this little nugget of wisdom rings hollow in our ears. When we learn about our subjects, its usually through our own efforts, bearing only a peripheral relation to the hour we spend in class.

At school, our teachers don’t teach us just history or literature or science; rather, they teach us about how to be schooled by talking about history or literature or science. Learning at an institution means learning is little more than the ability to repeat (despite how “critical” the text you read may be) the content of what has been said; what you learn at school is the process of repetition. Schools then give measurements that tell you and the world how successful you are at “learning.” For what other reason do you go to school than to receive a measurement of your ability to learn, for some corporation to say later, “This person is good at being schooled-let’s hire her.”

What happens at schools is theft. We are trained to think that the ability and fact of learning is the product of being taught, rather than an inherent part of the human condition. Learning is sectioned off from the world. The classroom, they tell us, is where we learn about things and the world is where we deal with these things. Schools teach us that the world is a place to research, but that living “out in the world” doesn’t mean that you’re learning anything at all. Learning, they tell us, happens at schools.

While I’m sure many of you share my concerns, I’m also sure others will respond to this article with the na’ve question, “So why are you even at school in the first place?” The answer is simple enough: because if I’m not at school for the fourth “treatment” in my “learning process,” I won’t be considered a viable candidate for most jobs I find appealing.

Schools function to stabilize norms, to produce not learned people, but good consumers. These are not the only reasons that we and every other campus should engage in a more robust conversation about what it means to be part of an educational institution, exactly what it is we go to school for, and what we want to gain from it-but they are some. They are part of why I plan to participate in the ISM’s global week of action. Jonathan Katz ’10 can be reached at [email protected]