Rotring Fountain Pen. Original Gelatin Silver Print by Roger Mullins.

Berlin confounds me. His writing is reasonably clear, and I am passingly familiar with some of the theorists and theories he presents, but I had difficulty engaging with the latter portion of his book.  What I’ve decided to do here is to attempt to suss out the ideas of which I seem to have a grasp, wrestle with them a bit, and ask for clarification from anyone in the room.  Here goes.

Early 1990s America was in recession. Bush I was saddled with his broken pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Clinton based his campaign on the catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Regardless of the efficacy or lack thereof of government economic policies, the news was filled with the sounds of pundits gnashing their teeth and images of them wringing their moist hands (much like Dickens’s Uriah Heep) in despair.

The argument (or at least one part of the argument) during this time was that American students were not prepared to compete in 21st century economies. Business leaders called for reforms that would produce better workers for corporate America (many of the criticisms of education went to the core issue of inadequate technical skills: math and science in particular). The counter-response from educators (simplified here) was that higher education should not mimic corporate practices; universities are not sites  of production; education is not a product; we (the professoriate) are not managers of assembly-line instruction as measured by standardized testing and Learning Outcomes (NB: I assume all readers are familiar with learning outcomes, and have experience constructing them for individual courses. They were contentious in the 90s, as I remember, but a given during the past decade).  I’m including a link from Napa Valley College regarding learning outcomes because I taught as an adjunct there for twelve years, and this document informed my role on many levels during my last year of teaching there (2009). Learning Outcomes derive from the notion that education must be measurable, and that all disciplines must engage in codified practices from which follow standardized and demonstrable results.

Berlin addresses these tensions in chapter 3 where he writes “I do not wish to suggest that schools are blameless in the recent economic crisis. They must indeed reexamine what they are doing. Yet expecting business to provide ideas and direction for the effort is a mistake. First of all, when corporate leaders attempt to dictate what ought to take place in universities–in order, that is, to prepare better workers–they commonly offer a host of contradictions” (52).

My resistance to the changes proposed–and eventually adopted by many schools–was due to my distrust of a corporate approach to a liberal education. I felt then–and am troubled still–that education today is seen as a means to a job, a means of obtaining specific skills and task knowledge that creates technically astute individuals who are also compliant workers; if institutions of higher education co-opt the corporate model, then education limits participation in a democratic society by reducing the language of dissent and privileging the language of consent (by which I mean workers in the new economy, as trained by the new education, buy in to the capitalistic-democratic values  of free-market enterprise without questioning the inherent flaws of that system and in fact ascribe moral inadequacy to those who do not prosper under this system). I’m reminded of Orwell’s cautionary tale, 1984.  In particular, I refer to Newspeak, described by Orwell thus: “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” We live in an age when rapid “communication” is made with 144 characters, or with text message abbreviations that strip and reduce language to a form of haiku. When we reduce language, we impair complex thought.

I do not suggest that Berlin’s vision is so dark. He goes on to say that “Trying to adjust the college curriculum exactly to the minute configurations of the job market is out of the question. At the same time, I do not think what we in the academy can simply ignore the advice of employers” (53).  The dance between higher education and corporations is often difficult; I remember being that awkward 13 year-old at the middle-school dance: girls on one side of the room, boys on the other. (I couldn’t find anything from the late 60s. We didn’t have that kind of technology then).  That university research has often served and benefited corporations is indisputable. The tension lies in who has agency: the academy, or the corporation paying for the research.

In what direction, then, does Berlin want colleges to go? “Colleges ought to offer a curriculum that places preparation for work within a comprehensive range of democratic educational concerns”(54).  His claim, later, is “In short, education exists to provide intelligent, articulate, and responsible citizens who understand their obligation and their right to insist that economic, social, and political power be exerted in the best interests of the community. . . the work of education in a democratic society is to provide ‘critical literacy'” (55). At this point, I’m with Berlin. If anything, I try to teach to this model. I encourage students to recognize that language is power, that all language directed at them is designed to appeal to them, to manipulate them to action or promote conformity. I show them, for example, a variation of this image:

  From this we talk about image and symbol and how we agree to conform to a particular pattern. Though the shape of the sign and language upon it is the same, the pattern here seems more like a suggestion, or ironic, rather than an imperative, and our response changes as a consequence.

I’ll end rather arbitrarily, I’m afraid. Berlin continues his discussion of the tensions between commerce and education by saying “Finally, the new economic democracy would require consumers whose buying habits are intelligent responses to the needs of the community, not simply an extension of personal interest” (56). I don’t see how this concept meets the needs of corporations. Corporations do NOT want an intelligent consumer. Corporations require a consumer who is driven by personal interest. Sut Jhally, in his film Advertising and The End of The World, addresses this corporate interest well. The full video is available at the library in the media center.

While I would hope that Berlin’s work furthers the ideal of educating students to recognize “that language is never innocent, that it instead constitutes a terrain for ideological battle” (140), I’m skeptical that we’ll develop the intelligent consumers he suggests an economic democracy requires.  This has been a somewhat rambling post, but I do hope that I’ve at least made clear that I do not believe the academy should be merely a place to create good corporate citizens and willing consumers, but that it should be a place where an intelligent and engaged citizenry can be fostered. Anyway, that’s my:

And just for fun: