Broken Promises

Education, we are told, is about opportunity. It is about young people gaining the skills needed to get ahead in the new post-industrial economy. Whether Republican or Democrat, our political leaders tell us that schools are the way into a brighter future. But what if that future is determined, in fact, by how jobs get constructed and distributed in the new global economy. And if that means that more and more good jobs are fleeing the older industrial countries, then schools in those countries are not about opportunity but instead function as gate-keepers to a shrinking pool of rewards.

from College and social class: the broken promise of America
Cross Currents, Spring, 2006 by John Raines, Charles Brian McAdams

This is from a piece Raines and McAdams wrote last year; it’s a well-researched, passionate plea for change, although in all honesty they seem a little lost about what should be done. I do like their ideas about need-based funding and access, given the ongoing attacks on affirmative action and the apparent failures of ‘percent programs’ to diversify admissions either by class or race. And I certainly agree that we need to learn to ‘see’ class and to teach it in the classroom.

On the other hand, the writers never mention the class hierarchies and privileges built into their own (university) system, including the labor exploitation that underwrites the prominence of research institutions, in everything from low-paid staff to over use of adjuncts to over-paid administrators. Ironically, (tenured) professors themselves are becoming the “gate-keepers to a shrinking pool of [educational] rewards” in their own departments.

Most academics have this ‘outward gaze’ that seems to implicitly accept that what goes on where they work is less noteworthy than what goes on in other workplaces. The result is a focus on teaching about class rather than an attempt to directly challenge the class relationships they encounter and embody. It’s one thing to write papers that document inequity; it’s quite another to organize a card drive to create a faculty union.

I think its time the professors begin to clean up their own houses. In many senses, they are the ones who made the promise so famously broken. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey, for example, found that “112 presidents of traditional four-year public and private institutions, and systems, had compensation packages totaling at least $500,000,” an increase “in that level of compensation” of “53 percent.” Amazingly, even as funding for universities is shrinking, compensation for administrators is rising.

I continue to be astonished at the way academics who write about class seem to act or think as if they themselves are not participants in a system (or subsystem) of merit and class privileges that can and should be dismantled. This energy for reform needs to be turned inward, as it were, towards fully democratizing the University itself. Once the professors are organized (hopefully working with university staff and graduate students) then there might be a fighting chance at challenging the larger inequities Raines and McAdams lament.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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