and the Problem of Cultural Miseducation
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
One of the assumptions students often bring into my classes is
that education is synonymous with learning and being able to apply
a clearly defined set of concepts and techniques that will be
useful to them as classroom teachers. While it is clear that potentially
students can benefit from learning key concepts and practices
in any field, as a professor of education what most concerns me
is not the task of teaching students clearly defined concepts
and practical applications. It is the more difficult problem of
helping them understand the contexts in which widely shared cultural
ideas about human nature, learning, development, and education
have been created, promoted, adopted, and eventually abandoned
and supplanted by new ideas over time. There is a healthy tension
between student expectations about the aims of higher education
and my own.
There are also a variety of institutional pressures to streamline
both content and delivery _ to make learning more entertaining,
agreeable, measurable, and above all, convenient for everyone
concerned. This has me pondering the nature and perhaps the inevitability
of university-mediated miseducation. It has me thinking about
some of the professional practices and institutional patterns
that may foster miseducation in universities and the need to explore
possible remedies. I will take as my starting point Jane Rolland
Martin's (2002, p.5) assertion that cultural miseducation occurs
"when so many cultural liabilities or such devastating ones
are passed down that a heavy burden is placed on the next generation;
or, alternatively, when invaluable portions of the culture's wealth
are not passed down." My analysis focuses on three professional
challenges many of us face today: preparing future professors;
modifying institutional reward structures, and resisting pressures
to trivialize, commodify, and de-contextualize the curriculum.
Preparing the next generation of professors is one of the most
important challenges we face as a professional community. An important
part of any professional culture's wealth is the legacy left by
those who have gone before _ a legacy fully available only to
those who learn about the history of their field and begin to
grapple with perennial philosophical and ethical problems as part
of their graduate study. As we prepare future faculty members,
we need to ask whether continued emphasis on technical skills
and the rapid production of "marketable" academic projects
might not engender professional liabilities at the expense of
disciplinary wealth. McClelland (2002, pp.11-12) observes that:
"For the discipline of Education to pull away from the isolationist
and rarefied discourses that have become the mainstay of other
disciplines, it needs to recover a generalist spirit that once
was the cornerstone of education in the Humanities." He explores
the concept of the professor of education as a "generating
[who] "loves learning, who is imaginatively
enlivened to ideas, both great ideas from the past as well as
those being generated in the present, and who wishes to impart
this love to his or her students. Such a love draws the student
out, patiently and with care, into a world of imaginative possibility
where future horizons are projected in hope and in deepening thoughtfulness."
How might we best prepare the next generation of university professors
to become and to nurture generating generalists? How can we create
within the academy a professional climate that values and supports
teaching as a lifelong developmental process? As far as I can
tell, contemporary graduate programs typically do not encourage
students to seek historical and philosophical training, or to
engage in critical reflection on what it means to teach. This
is cause for concern because fighting miseducation requires clarity,
or at least thoughtful discussion about the aims and consequences
of education. It seems to me that university professors have themselves
been miseducated to the degree that they are unable or unwilling
to examine and discuss fundamentally important educational questions.
Such conversations must take place if universities are to become
more democratic, inclusive, and caring institutions.
This brings us to the second challenge: if we take it as a given
that universities ought to become more democratic, inclusive,
and caring places, we need to examine how the structure of reward
in higher education fosters some professional skills and activities
at the expense of others. I am hardly the first to note that universities
are rapidly becoming more like corporations in form and function.
University decision-makers have adopted any number of market-oriented
institutional practices as they compete with other public institutions
for tax dollars and political influence. Corporations claim to
educate workers, while universities claim they train people for
higher paying, higher status jobs.
For administrators trying to make ends meet on limited budgets,
it is self-evident that research universities must find alternative
ways to generate new sources of revenue. They seem to grant heroic
stature to faculty successful in this realm. As a consequence,
reward structures for university professors encourage entrepreneurial
activities. Young faculty members find themselves under intense
pressure to prove they have the "right stuff" by pursuing
lines of inquiry likely to meet with the approval of external
funding agencies. As teachers, they learn to avoid the risks inherent
in teaching well (including the considerable risk of investing
too much time in it). The system as a whole operates against those
inclined toward "challenging students `realities'" by
"introducing an element of epistemological chaos" in
their classes (Schifellite, 2002, p.11), and exploring diverse
teacher narratives of reflection, hope, freedom, journey, apprenticeship,
social criticism (Preskill and Jacobvitz, 2002). I worry that
competitive systems for allocating rewards among untenured and
post-tenure faculty members may promote the use of pedagogical
tactics most likely to garner high student approval ratings on
instruments whose flaws are well known but largely ignored (Baldwin
and Blattner, 2003). Extrinsic incentives for academic labor foster
competition, anxiety, rivalry, factionalism, and demoralization.
They may also suppress risk-taking and creativity. It seems to
me that if professors seek to preserve and share cultural wealth,
as well as create new knowledge and ideas, we must find ways to
nurture diverse conceptualizations of what it means to be a good
professor. Although we may have little choice but to accept the
reality (and perceived necessity) of systems of extrinsic academic
reward, we should do what we can to minimize their adverse effects.
One way to do this is to reduce the salience of external reward
structures while deepening and making more inclusive our conceptions
of colleagues' actual responsibilities and creative contributions.
Providing faculty with meaningful opportunities to engage in informal
"shop talk" about their work as teachers, scholars,
and public servants would be a step in the right direction.
The third challenge involves taking a critical look at the curriculum.
The prospects for cultural miseducation increase when the university
curriculum emphasizes content over context. In fact, one of the
most valuable things we can do as professors is to examine carefully
the degree to which we balance the content/practice narrative
with the context/complexity narrative in our courses. The content/practice
narrative includes facts, definitions, skills, methods, concepts,
principles, theories, and so on. The context/complexity narrative
locates content within one or more contexts, acknowledging the
inevitability and the value of multiple points of view. It asks
whose knowledge counts, how cultural knowledge is created and
disseminated, under what circumstances, why, and with what effects?
For example, a lesson on the psychological principles of motivation
might include historical accounts of changing patterns of parental
discipline within different historical periods (Inkeles, 1966).
A lesson on constructivism might examine links between constructivist
pedagogies, modernity, and the social administration of the individual
(Popkewitz, 1998). The need to contextualize teaching is obvious
to scholars in some, but not all fields. Psychology and engineering
tend to emphasize content; history, anthropology, and women studies
emphasize context. In content-centered fields, those unable to
quickly demonstrate mastery of basic concepts and ways of thinking
must fight hard to keep from being weeded out. Little wonder that
content-centered fields have difficulty retaining visible minorities
and women. This is cause for concern, as miseducation occurs when
universities fail to provide women, minority groups, and the poor
with equal access to role assignments, role rewards, and power.
Another consequence of the content-driven curriculum is that
it lends itself to trivialization, commodification, and market
place exchange practices. For students confronted with vast arrays
of disembodied technical information and periodic objective examinations,
this means that the complex, potentially life-enhancing task of
working with their professors to develop a deep, compassionate
understanding of human wisdom and fallibility, past and present,
becomes irrelevant. Prospects for deep learning and creative thinking
are supplanted by concerted efforts to figure out how best to
minimize effort while maximizing gain (grades). I find that many
students are comfortable with and often seem to prefer this kind
of system. It expresses a kind of marketplace logic that pervades
everyday life outside the academy. This leads me to think it may
be time to revisit Neil Postman's neo-functionalist argument that
the proper relationship between Education and Society ought to
be one of opposition (Postman, 1979). Such opposition is essential
because Education is one of the only social institutions capable
of resisting and offering alternatives to dominant modes of communication,
which in turn shape cultural practices and moral values (ibid.).
It is imperative that professors help their students learn skills
and ways of thinking they will not be able to acquire elsewhere
(from the mass media, religious organizations, leisure activities,
the workplace, or marketplace). In order to achieve this end,
academic institutions must operate according to a different set
of rules, organizing experience and distributing resources in
ways that depart from what students expect and assume to be natural.
As I try to figure out how best to work with students who consider
classroom discussion and deep learning a waste of time, I will
continue to grapple with the problem of miseducation, examining
carefully my own assumptions about what university professors
do, why, and with what effects. My students may or may not thank
me for trying not to miseducate them, but that is probably not
Baldwin, Tammy., & Blattner, Nancy. (2003). Guarding against
potential bias in student evaluations: What every faculty member
needs to know. College Teaching, 51(1), 27-32.
Inkeles, Alex. (1966). Social Structure and the Socialization
of Competence. Harvard Educational Review 36 (3): 265-283,
McClelland, Kenneth. (2002). Professing Education as Generating
Generalist. Professing Education 1(1).
Popkewitz, Thomas. (1998). Dewey, Vygotsky, and the Social
Administration of the Individual: Constructivist Pedagogy as
Systems of Ideas in Historical Spaces. American Educational
Research Journal 5 (4): 535-570.
Postman, Neil. (1979). Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New
Preskill, Steve., & Jacobvitz, Robert. (2001). Stories
of Teaching: A Foundation for Educational Renewal. Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Roland Martin, Jane. (2002). Cultural Miseducation: In Search
of a Democratic Solution. New York: Teachers College.
Schifellite, Carmen. (2002). Professing modest claims in education.
Professing Education 1(1).