Dan Wang on Sun, 12 Oct 2003 16:13:47 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent

Keith Hart writes:

>Whatever we think of the country's present government, it has
>a lot to do with the fact that America is the world's most
>advanced experiment in democracy. To call such a society
>anti-intellectual is perverse.

To call America "the world's most advanced experiment in democracy" is to
provide strong support for Brian Holmes's suggestion, from another thread,

> Unfortunately (I mean this last word in a strong sense) democracy
> also appears to be something less than what it has claimed.

When Francis Hwang says:

> 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.

It makes me think, of course, of my own scholastic education--which at
it's most outwardly formal stage was a fairly unstructured experience.
That's not to say that it wasn't intense, because it was. But books and
bongs, activism and lazy days, meetings with profs and baking bread for
the first time...these were elements of equal importance in the
experience, for me and the people around me. I now recognize my experience
as having been shaped by the very tail end of the decades-long shadow cast
by the experimental American campus environments that emerged in the

"...like chaos," then...for if we favor E.P. Thompson's quick "one
definition of democracy" being the undoing of predictability in social
behavior and social choice, then I must say, for all the problems
associated with exclusivity and limited access, my experience in an
American college approached the democratic ideal in intent if not

I fear that this particular manifestation of democratic spirit has ebbed
almost everywhere in the US system of higher education. Two observations
in particular I'd offer, one totally obvious, the other maybe less

The first is the issue of cost. I attended what is and was a higher priced
school. But when I started in the fall of '86 it cost my family not much
more than $13k/year. Yeah, that's a lot. But, good god, the tuition for
this same school now stands at nearly $30k/year, as it does at nearly all
the so-called elite American private schools. My wife and many of our
friends went to this school; they could not afford to go to this school
today. The people who can afford to send their kids to these kinds of
schools now often have zero interest in "personal growth," whether that's
through classroom debate or doing elaborate practical jokery or performing
a campus job in the dining hall, it doesn't matter...what matters is
marketability, the recouping of that $120k investment.

To state the obvious, then: It is no coincidence that the dramatic rise in
tuition costs (at all the different types of higher education
institutions, really) rolled in at about the same time that the American
university experience reformulated as a largely predictable exercise in
job and career preparation, as opposed to education.

The second point has to do with student culture and drug use. For several
decades student populations formed the core of that segment of American
thinkers who experimented with different states of mind. Based on
comparisons of surveys of student psychoactive drug use now and even less
than 15 years ago, the conclusion is that full-time students as a group
are no longer playing this role. Rather, they are--as a group--playing the
new role of young people who fully integrate the use of instrumental drugs
(mostly anti-depressants) into their lives starting in late adolesence.
The over-diagnosis (often a self-diagnosis) of depression is a problem in
that many of the emotions that inform the education of an individual (in
the sense of "personal growth" and change) are precisely those of rage,
boredom, euphoria, etc--exactly those intensities that bring people to the
point of making formative decisions about who they are and what they
believe, sometimes even in real or imagined opposition to great societal
pressure. Of course these are also exactly those intensities of emotion
which are slightly dulled by the panopoly of instrumental psychiatric
treatments now available.

The trading in of one role for the other stands as one among many changes
in the character of the American educational experience and academic
environment--changes which are blunting the democratic spirit felt by
significant numbers of students for a generation at least, and which are
effacing the practice and transmission of intellectualism on campus.

My general point is that I believe that the American academy, starting
with the students, the pressures they face, and their methods of facing
them, is no longer the home for intellectuals (broadly defined as thinkers
who want to change things using ideas--and that includes left radicals,
liberal reformers, and neocons) that it recently was. Francis is correct
when he says that the Right is miles ahead in realizing this, and in
creating secure and productive non-academic homes for their intellectuals.
The Left is slower to understand, although it is happening through
numerous small projects, some of which I see as very promising--and which
in the end might prove more effective as platforms than academia ever

Dan W.

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