Education or edutainment?: Soliciting a Symbolic Exchange of Knowledge by Bryan C. Clift

With the start of the semester it seems fitting that the first entry on The Corpus re-launch revolve around education.

Today, higher education at (large) public institutions continues to see undergraduate enrollment increases simultaneously with faculty and instructor reductions. The once coveted now mythologized twelve to one student to teacher ratio is available only to those small private institutions whose attendance costs are out of reach for many. More recent shifts in course offerings have undoubtedly seen a rise in the number of online courses. Whether or not the pedagogical components necessary to provide a quality online course are feasible is most certainly an open-ended question, but the removal of human presence is compelling and the push for more online courses continues none-the-less. The rise of the University of Phoenix and other for profit universities signals this emphatically. Such shifts are telling narratives about the role of higher education in contemporary America: Education, like all things in a consumer-based and consumption dependent society, is for sale. College and higher education do not place the knowledge found within or formal learning as paramount. Rather, college education is an experience to be had, the subject of consumption, and a (new) form of entertainment based on the experience of education. An edutainment.

Sport, specifically college sport because it is directly linked to educational institutions, provides a useful medium for exploring edutainment. NCAA sporting contests remind us that education and entertainment increasingly overlap, on-air commentaries during sporting contests, like American football bowl games and the basketball tournament, that link athletic performance and success to increases in student enrollment positions students as spectators of sport, and as consumers of education. During a visit the town in which I grew up people with whom I had not spoken in some time responded similarly to my association with the University of Maryland: “So, you’re a Terp now.”  I replied, “Yes,” unable to ignore the primary association with my new school was its sporting symbol. With the merging of educational and sporting narratives we must recognize the parallels between the sporting spectator and the student as consumer, another trend circling above.

The axiom, “college is the best time of your life,” contributes to the development of student as consumer. College essentials have become as much, if not more, about parking, dining, recreation, resident life, indeed sport, and other collegiate experiences linked to consumption than they are learning (see Maryland’s main website and its list of “Essentials” under “Current Students”: http://www.umd.edu). What has become important is not learning or meaningful knowledge, but rather experiences that occur outside of the academic classroom – not that all learning should occur within the classroom. Universities, under pressure to provide what the customer wants in a climate of decreased funding and support, are happy to furnish other revenue sources. In a mutually implicit contract universities and students help foster edutational experiences at the corporate university. Needing to maintain the high caliber aura of higher education job preparation and job placement have become university operatives. This is evident in numerous areas, such as course offerings, tenure and promotion, and student-faculty ratios. Giroux (2009) reminded us that academe is about more than “job preparation and consciousness raising”; it is a space for the freedom to imagine different “futures and politics” as forms of “intervention into public life.”

Knowledge, conceptualized through Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange, or an endless cycle of gifts and counter-gifts, is useful for imagining higher education relieved of its economically restrictive, prescriptive, and culturally insular directives. Economic-Exchange, which uses anything economically productive and has no use for Symbolic Exchange because it cannot be articulated in monetary terms, remains the status quo. As the informal has trumped the formal to the extent that much classroom-based education is trivialized and meaningful only within Economic Exchange – its value to a job-candidate according to the market. Reduced to its economic viability, formal learning has relatively little translation to informal learning settings. Specifically, humanities or cultural perspectives rarely cross over the boundaries of the classroom unless students bring with them a proclivity towards cultural perspectives prior to attendance. Instead, friendships and bonds of fellowship made through the informal, while most certainly important, have become the cornerstone of higher education and future employment. The adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” has too much merit.

Seeking the college experience students are (pre-/re-)conditioned to look past education and knowledge-exchange, at the very least an encouraged imagination, and toward one particular letter in one particular course amongst three to five over the course of one particular semester that over the course of a few years leads to one piece of paper. That paper, a penultimate deathblow to culturally relevant education, signifies that the knowledgeable student will be a good employee. Once successful in navigating the employment terrain, which is currently quite un-welcoming, the culturally aware, seeking, or sensitized individual is dead; a symbolic exchange with knowledge is dead.

Culturally relevant education is positioned unfavorably because it is not necessarily dependent, nor does it have to be, on the same funding-bases and justifications necessary for the creation of opportunities found in scientific disciplines. Our current narratives of higher education promises to provide very little in the way of challenging a market fundamentalism that, as Giroux (2009) contended, pervades the space once thought “to open dialogue, imagine different futures, foster new connections, and embrace a language of critique that responds to urgent needs to reclaim democratic values, identities, and practices.” The business model of education recycles, sustains, reinforces, and deepens the market’s grip. Worth considering is a Symbolic Exchange of Knowledge that nourishes an imagination and opens opportunities for other ways of knowing that have traditionally been marginalized by the now stuttering capitalist machine.

Questions for consideration:

Is higher education a likely space for the Symbolic Exchange of Knowledge?

Is it more feasible to look to informal and/or alternative arenas for culturally relevant knowledge-exchange?

Can a non-pecuniary dependent model of education exist within capitalist architecture?

If attained, how can it be sustained?

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One thought on “Education or edutainment?: Soliciting a Symbolic Exchange of Knowledge by Bryan C. Clift

  1. Bryan,
    I love this!What a thoughtful exploration of some really worthwhile and well-articulated questions. I love how you’ve brought Baudrillard in here, because I’ve been thinking about your question of higher edu as a space for symbolic exchange without the theoretical grounding you offer so well here. It seems to me that if higher education is an institution, and institutions tend to help us reduce transactional costs in order to channel us down some (perhaps desirable) path, then those institutional processes of higher edu are also likely to act as barriers to our vision and understanding of all that is possible (beyond institutional processes). So I think it is unlikely that the institution of higher education can be a space of symbolic exchange simply because institutions themselves seem to encourage economical thinking – means-ends calculations. However, I think (I hope) that within the institution of higher education there is room for subversion and for grabbing and shaking and strangling (if only in effigy) individualized models of learning (which is more economical, more efficient – as in grading systems, where giving a student an A rather than substantive feedback is easier for the professor, who then doesn’t have to write the feedback, and easier for the student, who can interpret the A as excellence and then doesn’t have to sift through the professor’s substantive feedback (which may include critical feedback and may be less immediately gratifying). Teaching and learning can be subversive practices. I think it starts with teacher-learner-learner-teachers — roles blurred together — in an environment where all see each other as sources of knowledge. And then there are no set facts, fixed truths to be received, but rather a learning experience that is always in the making, a process where meanings are constantly being exchanged.
    I love this post. You’re awesome!!

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