I set out to write about Ken Robinson’s talk “How to escape education’s death valley,” which contains a number of interesting observations about education in the 21st century. Robinson makes important points about the role of human creativity and curiosity. However, after reading Michael Wesch’s short piece “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance,” I felt a certain compulsion to render a critique.
In 2008 Michael Wesch made the bold claim that: “The most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself. Students – our most important critics – are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.” He uses his own students for the primary examples of this phenomenon noting that his students often completed less than half of their assigned readings, many bought expensive textbooks that they never used, and only around one quarter found readings relevant to their lives.
I don’t dispute his findings, they largely track with my own anecdotal experience as a high school and undergraduate student as well as my experiences teaching undergraduates. I do, however, dispute the notion that what he calls the “crisis of significance” is somehow a new problem and I dispute the assertion that it is, absent larger context, the most significant problem in education today. Without reference to earlier studies, opinion polls, historical narratives, etc. it is quite impossible to know whether students in the past completed more of their assignments, felt more engaged in classes, and saw a greater “significance” in education. Maybe this is the case, but Wesch makes no attempt to demonstrate that the current period is different than previous periods. My “commonsense” hunch is that some students have always half-heartedly engaged in the materials and processes of learning. Some research seems to indicate students study less than in previous decades but it’s unclear exactly why this is the case (or that this is necessarily a bad thing).
Rather disappointingly, Wesch seems to place significant blame for student disengagement squarely on teachers. He writes: “As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces” students focused on instrumental measures of success rather than asking critical questions. And no doubt we can all learn new techniques for better engaging our students. Certainly ideas such as Ellen J. Langer’s suggestions on mindful learning including “side-ways learning” and skepticism of rote learning are helpful (1997, 14;22).
But, what’s completely missing from Wesch’s interpretation of contemporary university teaching/learning are recent structural changes and challenges to universities and macro-economic structures that may contribute to a crisis of significance for students. Universities face budget cuts, faculty face challenges to their control and direction of curricula, and there is a push to instrumentalize education. These processes are typified by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attempts to fundamentally restructure (dismantle is my preferred verb) some of the best universities in the country.
Such changes are part of what some call the “neoliberal revolution” begun in the 1970s, which has seen an ideology of so-called free-markets permeate all facets of life. As Wendy Brown writes, neoliberalism works by “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (2003, 7). Michel Foucault described this turn as the generalization of markets “beyond monetary exchanges” and to the realms of social and individual behavior (Senellart 2008, 243). In popular discussion and imagination this ideology is exemplified by the late Margaret Thatcher’s assertion of TINA – there is no alternative – to the spread of capitalist free-markets around the world.
Wesch’s concentration on individual teachers’ approaches to education/learning fits well within a neoliberal framework that focuses on “personal responsibility” rather than institutional or collective action. Many in the “education reform” camp have attempted to place all the woes in education on the shoulders of teachers (Uetricht 2014). Furthermore, it is within this ideological hegemony that students are educated and within this context that they must, after graduation, make their way in the world. So I put forward that a crisis of significance may cause students only to ask instrumental questions – will this be on the test? and how will I be graded? – partly because they recognize that they are located within an economic system that offers no guarantee of a materially comfortable life – even with a college or post-graduate degree. In fact, capitalism celebrates this insecurity and precarity. Students must compete in a volatile market to find a job and successfully completing their undergraduate education is increasingly seen as a part of this process. How will I be graded? then implicitly queries how comfortable and secure will my life be? Will an A in this course allow me to pay back my student loans?
Furthermore, students may be asking themselves: what difference does critical thinking make when the system I must enter upon graduation tells me repeatedly that my ability to live a decent life is predicated on accepting the vary narrow parameters of a politics of TINA?
I want to put forward, tentatively, that one of the greatest crises in education may be one of significance brought on by a mismatch between intrinsic human creativity and curiosity, mindful learning practices and brute realities of very narrow options for students. Furthermore, these realities do not exist in a vacuum. Wesch presents his crisis as ubiquitous. He doesn’t allow for the possibility that his anecdotal experience is simply that. I want to suggest that such a crisis cannot be understood as a universal – it must be located in particular temporal, cultural, and political milieus that have brought it about. Truly, how can learning and education be significant at all without such particularities?
Finally, though I find Wesch’s project of a world simulation interesting, I want to argue that confronting a crisis of significance can only be done in an explicitly critical, reflexive, and (re)politicized way. The choices students have available to them are constrained in various ways. However, in many cases, these constraints are not laws of nature but rather human inventions, rules, and institutions. Understanding, debating, altering, and in some cases eliminating these constraints must be an integral part of mindful education. I don’t read this commitment to structural change in Wesch’s argument.
Brown, Wendy. 2003. “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7 (1).
Langer, Ellen J. 1997. The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Senellart, Michel, ed. 2008. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–79. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Uetricht, Micah. 2014. Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. London and New York: Verso.