Juxtaposition and Critical Thinking

Continental European capitalism, which combines generous health and social benefits with reasonable working hours, long vacation periods, early retirement, and relatively equal income distributions, would seem to have everything to recommend it – except sustainability.

Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable“– Kenneth Rogoff

Mike Konczal assembles some striking quotes from Federal Reserve transcripts showing how obsessed the monetary overlords are with keeping wages down. I won’t recycle any of the quotes—check out his post for the full flavor.

The Fed and the Class Struggle” — Doug Henwood

Here’s an juxtaposition that might be used to teach critical thinking. The contrast between these two ways of seeing the economy isn’t simply a matter of right and wrong, yes and no, or even “subject positions,” although that certainly has a role.  Rogoff is an academic at Harvard and a former IMF economist.  It’s in his self-interest to support capitalism, of course, since he has so much riding on it.  He’s no apologist though and he’s in a bleak mood. Henwood’s successful too, but far outside the academic charmed circle.

What’s interesting is that Rogoff seems at a loss for words when it comes to the crisis undergoing capitalism. The most generous forms, he says, without any explanation, are “unsustainable.” Reading Henwood next to Rogoff gives us a sense of the reality behind the assertion.  No market is going to create what Rogoff calls “a better balance between equality and efficiency.”  Once we pull back the curtain, it’s the political struggle over resources–aka the class struggle– that lies at the hear our current problems and our hope of any solution.

Dumb Memes

I am starting to believe that there must be an inverse relationship between the blunt stupidity of an idea and its longevity as a cultural meme. I’m not talking about Obama’s birth certificate and the Pentagon conspiracy to bomb the World Trade Center, although those memes seem to endlessly circle around deep stinking pools of stupidly. Those are bad enough but they are just side-shows in the long run.

I’m talking about ideas that seem to quietly persist against all logic and across decades. When Reagan was elected more than 30 years ago he made his plans very clear. “Trickle-down” economics meant a sweeping redistribution of wealth from the poor, working, and middle classes, to the rich. If we give them our money, Regan said, they will give a trickle back. It’s made us all poorer but it’s an idea that just won’t die.

That’s what they did, too, as recent statistics have shown. Still, the Republican party and its “base” keep repeating the idea as if it were new and as if it were fine to give everything to the rich and then be happy with the trickle that comes back. There are lots of parallels in academia, too, dumb-as-hammer memes that seem to persist against all odds. One of the worst and dumbest academic ideas is the student evaluation.

Every year or so someone in the education press will publish yet another article explaining the “grain of truth”  that we should all glean from student evaluations. We can’t do anything about them, we are told, and they will be used to assess our work,  so we need to try to see what they might tell us.  Never mind that they have no legitimacy as data and that they can and will be used for the usual sorts of political pettiness.

The Hollow Men

I hate to go all ad hominem, but if I am, especially when it comes to someone like Harold Bloom (see, “Harold Bloom by the Numbers“) , I have to go for T.S. Elliot: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!” It’s not so much Bloom’s freakish careerism, if not greed, that’s so bothersome, although that’s disturbing enough.

What gets my goat is that Bloom– and the journalist, Carlin Romano– seem so blissfully unconcerned about the ways that Bloom’s ideas reflect the self-serving decadence of academic intellectual work at this particular time in U.S. history. “This is cactus land / Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man’s hand / Under the twinkle of a fading star.”

Romano calls Bloom an “unsteady Midwest autocrat… oblivious as his ritual pronouncements fall on deaf ears.” Fair enough. What’s disturbing is that way that Bloom’s status seems to excuse him from complicity in the long list of problems– from labor exploitation to administrative salaries to rising tuition– facing academia. Isn’t there a connection between these problems and the old autocrats like Bloom?


How Not to Change

I’ve said before that I think the electronic textbook is both inevitable and desirable. In the long run, I think collaboratively run Wiki’s make the most sense for college learning, because they are flexible, collaborative, and cheap.  They create dramatically collaborative models– symbols, really– of knowledge production. These new textbooks would signal a profound shift away from old models of intellectual property that continue to hinder both the production and the democratization of knowledge. It’s a tool with enormous potential.

Access can be tailored to need or to pedagogical or even national style. Some teachers might make editing the textbook a part of their curriculum; some not.  Wikis can be modified and maintained, creating local or regional iterations of the textbook; or, if necessary, abandoned and relaunched at the start of each session. The textbook ceases to be an object and become a network of evolving knowledge. All that is well and good. What worries, me, however, is that, as in other industries, new technologies will promote disenfranchisement rather than power.

That’s what I thought as I was reading, “Early Finding of Cal State U. E-Textbook Study: Terms Matter.”  It’s an instructive example. We should  survey students about their preferences, but if 2/3’s of them are either neutral or unhappy about the technology, then I think it makes sense to develop some sort of hybrid strategy, combing print and digital technologies, at least for the near term. E-books, and my “dream Wiki” need to be easily printable in an attractive format. We just don’t know yet if digital is the future or a cognitive style or, perhaps more likely, both.