Francis Hwang on Sat, 11 Oct 2003 15:21:09 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent

On Wednesday, October 8, 2003, at 07:27  PM, Kermit Snelson wrote:

> But take heart, fellow intellectuals.  The American counterrevolution
> is just about complete, and a hereditary dynasty of Georges is back on
> the throne.  That long nightmare, the American Revolution, is just 
> about
> over.  Magazines like "The Atlantic," which once published the likes of
> Mark Twain, are now praising time-honored institutions like nepotism 
> and
> the British nanny, squeezed in between ads for Lockheed-Martin, wealth
> management services, and timesharing arrangements on Gulfstream jets.
> The market for other expensive toys, like American intellectuals, has
> clearly never been better.  There may soon be opportunities in America
> even for a court jester or two.

Those opportunities already exist, at conservative think tanks. The 
American right is miles ahead of the left in terms of institutionally 
supporting its intellectuals, whether or not their party is favored in 
Washington that year or not.

The left version of the think tank, of course, is academia, but this 
organizational structure is inherently less stable for the plain reason 
that universities by their nature are highly dependent on public 
largesse.  This makes them more vulnerable to public opinion, and 
requires academics to stay in touch with the communities they depend 
upon. Their record of doing so has been poor, to say the least.

There are a number of reasons that the academy and society have been 
drifting apart, but one of the strongest in my mind is that at some 
point in the late 60s, after the working class was slow to get on board 
with civil rights, women's liberation, and stopping the Vietnam War, 
the intellectual left must have decided subconsciously that it would be 
better to covertly transform society one student at a time rather than 
address these issues head on. (And I can't help but wonder if those 
intellectual leftists who believed in Marxist blather about "false 
consciousness" would have had any other choice: There's no point in 
actually _talking_ to the hoi-polloi once you've convinced yourself 
that they are the ones who're brainwashed.)

So the academy became increasingly insular, and the language it used 
became less generally comprehensible every decade, until we reached a 
state where few academics seem to have the inclination or ability to 
bring their work to the attention of the world outside their lecture 
halls. And although false nostalgia is dangerous, it's hard for me to 
escape the feeling that intellectuals in the last century were much 
better at putting themselves on the line for their beliefs than those 
of this one. I can't think of any modern cases comparable to, say, 
George Orwell enlisting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, 
or Eugene V. Debs organizing labor unions and preaching socialist 
revolution, ultimately garnering 10% of the popular vote for President 
while he was in prison for speaking out against World War I.

(Calling Debs an intellectual is perhaps a bit of a stretch; he was 
much more of a sentimental reformer than a theorist. But at the least 
he was somebody with the faith that ideas could change society, and as 
such deserves some consideration.)

Much of this work, with its emphasis on multiculturalism and the 
imperative of the individuated self, was directed at reforming U.S. 
culture -- to be fair, there was much work to be done, and much has 
been accomplished. But in waging the cultural war, the left may have 
ceded the economic war to the armies of consultants scribbling away in 
conservative think-tanks. Hence society gains on one front and loses on 
another. Interracial marriage is unremarkable and gays enjoy unheard-of 
visibility in pop culture and society at large. But the whirlwind flow 
of global capital wreaks havoc upon vulnerable societies (cf. the 
looting of post-Soviet Russia, the currency meltdown in East Asia); 
multinational corporations increasingly visit depredations upon the 
Earth; and income inequality threatens to make the middle class a 
polite anachronism like Wurlitzer jukeboxes or poodle skirts.

We'll see which victory trumps the other. When the economics are on 
your side there's very little culture you can't buy: Just ask Rupert 
Murdoch. And suburban taxpayers need very little prodding to ask why 
universities cost so much if nobody can understand what the professors 
are saying. Hence the modern transformation of the university into a 
factory of knowledge, with talk of efficiency, accountability, and the 
suppressions the unionizing efforts of food-service workers and 
graduate students.

It used to be that you could tell the State Assembly that the 
University is a public good, and shouldn't be viewed like another 
listing on the NASDAQ. But nobody knows what a public good is anymore, 
and the only sort of organizational model that registers in the 
political imagination is the one touted on CNBC and Fast Company: That 
of the lean, merciless corporation complete with shareholders, 
quarterly reports, and the occasional round of layoffs. (The only other 
model of organizational purpose that people seem to be familiar with is 
that of the armed forces, which are driven by the notion of duty and 
loyalty: a difficult concept to graft onto the anarchic academy, to say 
the least.)

Svetlana asked what this discussion would sound like if you said 
"specialists" or "professionals" instead of "intellectuals". In some 
ways we're getting dangerously semantic, but to my ear professionals 
and specialists are different from intellectuals in that their worth to 
society is more obvious. Doctors and architects have their esoteric 
languages, like academics, but nobody doubts the need for those 
professions. People get sick. Buildings need to be designed. Even 
something obscure like usability consulting can be explained. "I help 
companies make their websites easier to use", you tell your aunt Jean 
over dinner, and she says "Do you ever work with Hotmail? Cause 
sometimes it's really confusing." She might not know the lingo, but she 
can understand what you do and why somebody might pay for it.

But what do academics do? They make more ideas? Do we really need that 
many new ideas?

This discussion has been of particular interest to me, not only because 
I've never had a single day of graduate education, or because my 
Bachelor's is from a thoroughly unimpressive school, but because the 
two career paths I've had any significant experience with -- journalism 
and software engineering -- are two in which academia is largely out of 
step with practice. Most of the writers I learned from didn't have 
journalism degrees, and many of my contemporaries at the college paper 
where I started writing snippy little book reviews went on to do 
respectable journalistic work without the benefit of a single class on 
the subject. And the computer science classes offered at most 
universities seem curiously split between 1) how to learn a flashy 
technology that will be obsolete before you graduate, or 2) how to 
learn arcane mathematics that would be of use to you if you were going 
to write a compiler or a new computer language. What's missing is the 
pragmatic stuff that's vitally important to almost every newcomer at a 
software company: How to stay in touch with new concepts and methods, 
how to write complex code with 10 other people that doesn't break every 
time you look at it, and how to continually improve your craft.

Obviously I'm not an intellectual in the academic sense. And since I 
can't point to the one undeniable advantage of an academic education -- 
namely, that being in academia qualifies you for a chance to stay in 
academia for the rest of your life -- I do have to wonder: What did I 
get out of all of it, since most of what I care about I learned on my 

When I think back to my undergraduate years -- which should have been 
four but ended up being six because I kept on getting distracted by 
freelance writing, computer programming jobs, my zine about the 
theoretical implications of pencil-and-paper role-playing games, and an 
excessively complicated social life -- my most formative experience was 
that of working at the arts & entertainment section of the college 
newspaper. It was there that for the first time of my life I fell into 
step with people who I felt were my intellectual peers, and although 
much of what I learned about writing there I taught myself, much of the 
motivation to push myself was supplied by my friends. Sure, the work 
gave you an exposure that you couldn't get from writing academic papers 
-- one night a pretty girl at a club told me "I love you" because she 
thought my celebrity-gossip-cum-media-criticism columns were funny -- 
mostly you were writing for the handful of other writers there, always 
trying to impress them with your expansive mind or your fatal wit. At 
times the office felt more like a tree house than a newspaper, and the 
core of writers became an inseparable clique, crawling in the day 
through deadlines and edits and then at nights through small indie-rock 
parties in our peculiar Midwestern city.

And then, of course, it stopped. One day I looked up and the energy had 
dissipated -- half of the original group had graduated and left the 
paper, and at any rate we'd started growing apart, never mind the 
various resentments that had calcified under all the merriment. It was 
inevitable, of course, and in the end the paper was probably only good 
for me for a year, more or less. I left the paper, started working 
freelance at the local alt-weekly (which was a step up professionally 
but obviously much less fun) and a few years later left the city 

So although I won't speak for others, I will say for myself that what 
helps me to learn, what motivates more than anything else, is to be 
surrounded by others who will reinforce my sneaking suspicion that 
knowledge matters. It doesn't matter who these people are. They could 
be professors, fellow classmates, reporters in a college newspaper, 
unknown faces on a mailing list or a Wiki. Ultimately I can't learn 
anything unless I do it myself, but I have an easier time forcing 
myself to do it if I'm surrounded by people who believe in more than 
buying big televisions and getting into the right parties.

But here's the funny thing about education: If it depends so much on 
group dynamics, then there's nothing stable or repeatable about it. You 
can increase your odds of fostering a good education, as good 
universities do, by trying to get inspiring professors and motivated 
students, but none of these factors show up on a spreadsheet or are 
easily understood by MBAs. Which is why the attempts of certain 
institutions to become megalithic academic shopping malls 
(*cough*NYU*cough*) are both interesting and perhaps quixotic. If you 
only want a degree as a path towards career advancement, those degrees 
will probably be fine. But for those who truly value education it would 
be interesting to look at how these institutions handle the demands of 
surging minds and impetuous ideas. As institutions grow in size, they 
begin to crave predictability, and their natural habitat is a quiet, 
placid order. But education is personal growth, which is to say that 
it's change. At times it can even look like chaos.

Francis Hwang

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