Wake up and smell the McEducation!

I prepared this paper in December 2007 for a “Globalization and Spirituality” course with Dr. Dittmar Mundel.  Dittmar’s exceptional course focused on students questioning the established social order and asking what they were losing with unquestioning compliance.  As I move into my Masters of Integrated Studies in Educational Studies, I pulled out this paper once again to remind myself of my values.  It’s long and riddled with grammatical errors and an abundance of quotation marks, but not a bad read.  Thanks @plind for the opening story.

I’d like to begin this essay with a short story. My sister is a pharmacist and she experienced a paradox the other week. On the one hand, she was trying to secure a prescription of experimental cancer medication from a hospital in Calgary. Her patient was given a short-term amount of this medication and the pharmacist at the hospital called my sister to get the script for the remainder of the medication. This pharmacist was unable to reach the family to request the script, and so contacted my sister to see if she was able to track down the family. My sister replied by pointing out that due to new regulations for pharmacists, he should be able to waive the script and send out the medication. The pharmacist refused, stating that as a hospital pharmacist, such privileges did not extend to his post. My sister recognized that though this pharmacist had the necessary clearance, he didn’t want to be held responsible for releasing such medication without doctor approval. She then reminded the pharmacist that he was in a hospital and literally surrounded by doctors who could reproduce the script at will under the given circumstances. The pharmacist agreed and procured the required script. He returned the call after this was done and informed my sister that the medication would be sent via express-post to her pharmacy. She questioned whether express-post had guaranteed delivery; he stated it did not, at which point she reminded him that the patient would be without medication in less than two days time. She asked him to send the prescription by Loomis, the only one-day carrier which serviced her rural community. After contacting the mail department of the hospital, the pharmacist called my sister back and stated “we don’t deal with Loomis.” My sister asked him to call Loomis to make a special pick-up at the hospital, at which point the pharmacist asked if the family would be able to call the delivery company as, within the hospital policy, Loomis was not an acceptable carrier. My sister, extremely frustrated, pointed out that this family was dealing with a father, a husband, a friend who was dealing with a cancer so serious that the patient required an experimental drug to combat the disease.
At the same time, hurricane force winds were blowing across Southern Alberta. Whether caused by a careless cigarette, a farmyard burn barrel, or natural forces, a wildfire was burning its way across the countryside. Her town and the town in which she worked were declared in a state of emergency due to the difficulty the fire services were having in containing the fire. Not only was the surrounding area in jeopardy, two houses were being seriously threatened by the fire. The owners of the two homes in question were supervising their children’s volleyball game in another town. They had gone to the game on the team bus and had no way to return. Due to the nature of small town life, neighbors, friends, and family members were doing all they could to save the homes under threat. There was a call placed to farmers in the area requesting farming equipment (tractors and discs) to plough a barrier for the fire. My sister’s husband was at home caring for their three children and was unable to answer the call until she could come home from work. She was late in leaving work because she was dealing with a university educated pharmacist who was unable to take the initiative to call a delivery service which was not approved by the hospital maintenance board.
The absurdity of this situation is striking. On the one hand you have a university educated individual who is well aware of the negative impacts of missing a dose of medication, especially experimental medication. On the other hand, you have a bunch of stereotypically “uneducated hicks” who looked to the potential suffering of another family within their community and took it upon themselves to help another in need. If this is how “educated” individuals perform in the world, where have we gone wrong?
While reading the paper “Cultural Captivity and the Need for a Liberating Education” by Dittmar Mundel, I was struck by the stark parallel between the present university system in Canada and the German university during Hitler’s time. I wondered if such an extreme parallel could be argued rationally. Walking the halls of Augustana, I wondered if it were really fair to say that each professor, and each student would possibly act in the same way were the holocaust or an equivalent repeated in our present day. I have often said that Augustana is a bubble in which a liberating education is not only offered, but demanded of its students, but upon talking to a fourth year student who is just now (and by chance) questioning the underlying values within our education system, I fear that this bubble is not as encompassing as I had first thought. This vein of thought leads me in the two directions I shall explore in this essay: how has our university education system snuck its agenda of mastery and complacency past the most learned people of our community, and what can we do to reverse this trend as professors and as students?
The colonization of the University
The university is a paradigm, like any other institute invested with cultural capital. We are “educated” in a specific way to achieve certain ends. Through the course of this class we have discussed the hidden agenda behind a number of cultural constructions: beauty, agriculture, employment, health, communities, culture, and relationships, among others. We have also touched on education, but criticism of the university system is difficult for those who are determined to perform within its confines in order to receive scholarships and grants, or even simply degrees. It is not surprising that many of us have a difficult time criticizing the system in which we are currently working as “universities enjoy a privileged position” (Pocklington and Tupper, 4) and are seldom questioned, even by the public at large. I feel this lack of questioning within the system happens for three major reasons: students, as a group of savvy consumers, are willing to exploit the university to obtain their degrees; the university, a corporate entity, wants to “attract money, study money, and make money” (Pocklington and Tupper, 139); and professors, the traditional mouthpieces of counter-hegemonic thought, have ceased being responsible for their work as educators.
Throughout my research for this essay, I have become aware of a startling fact: university is a business, and the University of Alberta is a corporation. While I agree that a discussion about the mission statement of this corporation (that is the hidden “value of mastery through the use of technical reason” (Mundel, 531)) is important, we will place this idea aside for a moment in order to discuss the clients which continue to support this business. The “slow encroachment of the mall mentality [in which] students behave like consumers” (Klein, 98) not only inhibits a sound questioning of university values from all angles, but reduces professors to producers and hems them by a “customer is always right” mentality. While studying at the University of Alberta, I had a friend who was an English professor at Grant MacEwan. On one occasion he was discussing a first-year group of business students who attended his class. He felt that within this large group of students perhaps one or two of them deserved to pass the class. Acknowledging the consumer nature of the university system, he confided that he would be unable to fail such a large group of students without repercussions. He knew that ultimately such a large group of students would contest their marks, his decision would be overturned, and his job may be in jeopardy. Official channels are not the only way students manipulate their way through school. Students are aware of the care paid to undergraduate work and capitalize on the lack of standards in order to obtain the minimal mark to pass. Students recognize the power they have as employers of their professors and are able to manipulate their way through post-secondary to obtain the degree they need to get the high paying job they really want. While some professors may wish to operate outside of the university of consumption, many are left to lament the belief that their “function – and more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s- is to divert, entertain, and interest” (Klein, 98).
The university is only too happy to comply with the business model posited by students, and, as argued earlier, undergraduate work is not that important anyway. In this way, the university as an institution is the ultimate in a long line of branding techniques which have geared students to indebt themselves in order to consume at a higher level. The purpose of academia from the business model is not to encourage you to think, but to make you better able to passably reiterate what was spoon fed to you in class, out of approved textbooks, funded by certain research grants, backed by big business, and ultimately encouraging you to buy into the consumer culture that permeates the whole thing. It is to increase your employability, a fact those consumer-students are well aware of. In fact, a university education not only encourages you to participate in the cliché rat-race lifestyle, it demands it as many walk off the stage on which they receive their degree and into a staggering debt load. I have been experiencing a marked split in my university life this semester. On the one hand I am a student, oblivious to the goings on behind the scenes of the university structure. On the other, I am attempting to immerse myself into that very system in order to understand it and hopefully make my own small contribution to the commendable work I still idealize. Within my first week of work in the IOCSL office, I came to the startling realization that from within the bureaucracy of the university, students, especially undergraduate students, are a target market which is to be exploited not only to continue the work of the university as a body of educators, but more importantly to sponsor research production which raises the brand strength of the university itself. It was for this reason that I had to mentally and emotionally separate the work I was doing for the university from the work I was doing as an undergrad in order to avoid looking around at my fellow students (and myself) as walking dollar signs. If this is how I must rationalize my education to myself, what struggles do professors and administrators face in the same system?
Mundel’s parallel between Nazi Germany and the present state of our education system is just bold enough to get our attention, and the question he asks, namely “what blinded these highly educated people?” (Mundel, 523), is echoed in Naomi Klein’s analysis of the university system. “Why have university professors remained silent, passively allowing their corporate “partners” to trample the principles of freedom of inquiry and discourse that have been the avowed centerpieces of academic life? […] Aren’t these people […] counter-hegemonic?” (Klein, 103). Though I am reluctant to write off every individual within the education system, I must argue that as a paradigm, the university itself is anything but counter-hegemonic. This means that university educators themselves have fallen into the trap of dominant culture they often warn students about in their classes (especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences). Sallie McFague discusses the “hegemonic human being” (McFague, 47) as a white, successful, young male who is educated, drives a nice car and is able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. Many professors (and other educated individuals) epitomize this figure of humanity. Though their studies have taught them to examine such constructs, the position of power they occupy as a result of that education leads them to an “invisible participation” (Marino, 107) in dominant culture. They “participate without seeing [themselves] as participants” (Marino, 107) and students, much like children, can see the inconsistency. It has been said that a self-identified Christian who leads another away from the ways of the Bible should look upon him/herself as compromising the work of Christ. In the same way, educators, holding positions of power over students, and positions of respect within the community are morally responsible to “practice what they preach.” If one is to speak of environmental degradation while investing in the tar sands development, or speak of tolerance while practicing subtle forms of discrimination within the classroom, these educators have lost what could be the last chance to liberate a young mind. While I recognize there are certain limitations which the university bureaucracy must be held accountable for, professors must, in our time as they should have during Hitler’s regime, stand for what they believe in despite all forces that may mount against them. Due to the public nature of their post, they must do it publicly.
Liberating Education – freeing students and professors
In this portion of my essay, I will only deal with the human elements of the education system. Though much can be blamed on the bureaucracy of the university, ultimately it is people who make the rules and abide by them. Just as Hitler’s machine of extermination eventually came to rest, so too can the university bureaucracy be challenged and changed. In order to achieve this, however, we must first acknowledge the limitations of students and professors and then provide a space for them to create a new and authentic form of education: one in which students can feel supported, and professors can claim responsibility for their role in transitioning students into autonomous beings.
We have previously outlined why students are not satisfactorily engaging in their education, but I would like to recognize that students are in a vulnerable position when they enter into university. They are opening their minds to powerful influences which question the foundation of their being. I argue that encouraging students to go to university directly out of high school creates the most perfect mix of uncontrolled consumer attitudes and undeveloped personal beliefs. It is in this way that the destabilizing nature of university only serves the corporate machine. The classes in the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences are arguably the most guilty. These classes require that students ask “The Big Questions”, while demanding they remain objective and detached. They compel students in a 50-minute, three-times-a-week, four-month format to answer “what is the meaning of life.” Students are expected to hand in a 12-page term paper which is meant to encapsulate and put down in writing exactly what view of the world they subscribe to. All this is done in an environment where students and professors are cut off from one another as people, leaving students exposed and vulnerable to the scourge of marketing to satisfy their need for esteem in a situation which shakes the foundation upon which they have previously situated their notions of self. While I recognize the importance of professionalism in order to maintain the standards of excellence in research perpetuated within the university, “professional detachment” is not necessary, and is in fact damaging to the work that universities should be doing. Professors and students alike need to recognize that the process of education is preparation for the next generation to take over the responsibility of directing human society.
Mundel asks his fellow professors “what kind of persons do we want our graduates to be?” (Mundel, 533). This question on its own flies in the face of objective, “value free” teaching and demands that professors recognize that, contrary to popular belief, education is more “than the transferring of “stuff” to a student’s brain” (Klein, 92). As we enter headlong into the economy of knowledge, university in general, and professors in particular are allowing individual access to the intellectual and spiritual resources of our time. Much like a martial arts master pledges a level of devotion to his student (and also takes joy in that devotion), university professors must recognize their roles as gatekeepers to a beautiful and integral aspect of our human existence: our stories, our myths, and our knowledge. University professors must make a commitment to students, and both parties must acknowledge that they are entering into a relationship with one another. Though this presents a certain personal danger to professors who are teaching within the mall mentality mentioned earlier, I put the onus on professors as they occupy the traditional seat of power within the relationship. Professors need to empower themselves in order to serve their students. They must reclaim those alienated parts of their being which they offer in our present smorgasbord university. They must cease objectifying themselves if they are ever to be treated as anything but objects. Professors must allow themselves the time and space to move beyond the arms-length approach to students and into a more personal and hence invested relationship with their prodigies.
From the student side, I can see this approach manifesting in two predominant responses: outright hostility and rejection, and open and appreciative acceptance. The postmodern consumer culture in which most students have grown up does not readily lend itself to a mentoring approach. Disconnected communities, absent parents, and the harsh realities of life as a teen have hardened many students before they ever grace the steps of a university. They have been required to find a vein in which to survive, and a large part of conflict within university classes reflects student’s reluctance to deconstruct the mechanisms of self which have lent to their survival through those formidable teen years. Most students would not readily accept the analysis that they are individuals who are naive to the ways of the world, but put simply, most university students have not had the length of life in which to deal with the pattern of constructing and reconstructing a sense of self. Though most students have dealt with varying levels of hardship, few have had the experience of consciously looking at their sense of self and analyzing the contribution their values, goals, and driving principals had to that conflict. For many, the great failures of life, those experiences which demand an individual to look at her sense of self, are far off in the future. Perhaps their university education will help them then, but we can be assured that any class which is taken “because it is required” will not likely provide them the tools needed to recover from such an experience. Though mature students have a greater bank of experience to access, they are not immune to this stubbornness. The potential is present for these students, recognizing the financial burden of education, to demand “their money’s worth.” It is important for students to recognize that professors are not commodities, and they are not members of some totalitarian regime which is trying to replace our parents.
Not all students would react to an invested education in this way. Some individuals are drawn to university because they have a genuine curiosity about life. It is these students, the ones who have been drawn to university as a part of a quest or spiritual journey who would manifest the second response to a more personally invested academic body. This is not to say that professors could expect the “uncritical and unconscious submission” (Mundel, 526) of students to their own “authoritarian personality” (Mundel, 524), but it would push professors to recognize their role in transitioning students from a state of hegemonic submission to “autonomous action” (Mundel, 525). This is simply not happening in our present “value free” (read McEducation) university paradigm. Not only does this continue to feed into the corporate education model, it takes those students who would be open to a liberating education and tells them that their experiences are wrong, uneducated or naive. The ultimate lesson these students learn is that the world “just doesn’t work like that.” My own experience at the University of Alberta as a 19-year-old undergrad underscores this point.
My first approach to university was one of a bright-eyed country girl who was excited and partially prepared to ask the questions behind her fledgling construction of self. I recall sitting on campus the first semester and breathing in the deep underlying hum of important thought which vibrated through the very stone I was perched upon. I thought of the many great minds that had conversed in the halls of the massive buildings before me and tingled with the realization that the university had chosen me to walk in those halls and study in those classrooms . It took more than two years for the enthusiasm to wear off. My academic experience, coupled with the harsh learning curve of leaving my parent’s home and moving to a city for the first time, led me to leave the university lest all my inspiration for life be sucked from my bosom. Though my return to academia was inspired by the very practical need for a degree (any one will do) in order to continue teaching ESL overseas, the spark of interest in what I imagined a true university education to be must not have been extinguished by my first foray into the system. As previously stated, Augustana seems a bit of a bubble. It is a school in which professors seem to be truly interested not only in teaching, but in their students as people, and the building of community as a whole. As with all good and precious things, I must at least acknowledge the possibility of Augustana becoming a school akin to the ones I have criticized in this paper. There are many individuals whom I see as fighting the tide, but the structure behind these people is already in place and if it doesn’t overwhelm them (as it has for some), it will eventually take over when these individuals decide to retire. Unless, of course, a group of students is inspired to care for the form of education I have found within this institution.
On Fires and Pharmacists
Now that we are reaching the end of this paper, and I am assured that you have heard my preliminary arguments for a different type of education, I can tell you that my sister’s patient did receive his medication by Loomis. By reminding the pharmacist that this patient had a context, a community, and a family, my sister was able to free him, in some small part, from his “automaton conformity” (Mundel, 528). The houses under threat were not damaged by the fire. Due to the ceaseless efforts of friends and neighbors, along with fire fighting personnel, the fire was kept at bay on the edge of the family’s yard.
The juxtaposition of these two events continues to strike me. Mundel asks if it is possible “to have a “liberating education” that leads both faculty and students from captivity and apathy to social engagement for peace, justice for all, and the integrity of creation” (Mundel, 522). I would like to commend him on addressing both bodies in the academic model: professors and students (not to mention those behind the scenes members of the university body). In my opinion, academia and students alike need to recognize that they are both in the process of learning. That is to say, education is a living tradition which itself is free from hegemonic beliefs about how it should be done. Both bodies, pushing the limits of human knowledge needs a partner to be accountable to. Not only are they moving toward discovering the next breakthrough (be it in science, technology, theology, or philosophy), but they are defining what that breakthrough will be with every paper they write.

Works Cited
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. New York: Picador, 2000.
Marino, Dian. Wild Garden: Art, Education and the Culture of Resistance. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1984.
McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
Mundel, Dittmar. “Cultural Captivity and the Need for a Liberating Education.” Edmonton: U of Alberta Press, 2000.
Pocklington, Tom and Tupper, Allan. No Place to Learn: Why Universities aren’t Working. Vancouver: UBC, 2002.

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2 Responses to “Wake up and smell the McEducation!”

  1. I am not sure if they are that different. The young educated pharmacist is duty bound to follow the steps laid out by his employer, not necessarily the big business that manipulates the University professors. After some experience with the application of knowledge experientially and understanding where the boundaries are and how the fence lines can be challenged, this young pharmacist may be open to act more like the farmers and less like the big institution that hired him.
    Just a thought. Paulo Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) talks about limit situations within education. I interpret this as understand what the boundaries are and push against those limits.

    Al Lowrie

  2. onepercentyellow Says:

    Wow! Thanks for reading Al! As it says in the intro, this is an essay from quite a few years ago. I still come back to these thoughts when I consider what type of educator I want to become. Certainly I keep Paulo Freire in mind when considering how and why we educate students. If the young pharmacist were instructed in a framework of praxis, I would be surprised with such an automaton reaction. I would argue that the duty-bound reaction that puts rules ahead of people (especially in such a petty way) is indicative of an education system that produces workers and soldiers, as Dave Cormier discussed in his presentation in our ECI831 class. My sister, as a nomad and an equal to the other pharmacist, was able to push back against that limit situation and inspire a reevaluation of the situation. As Malcolm Gladwell describes so convincingly in The Outliers, this ability to even speak with individuals in positions of power (educated positions) is not a given. Would another worker or soldier have been able to secure the medication required, or would the patient have suffered due to hospital policy on which express carrier is approved?

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