Professing Education
June,2003.Vol 2.No.1 P.12-P.14

Universities and the Problem of Cultural Miseducation

Jan Armstrong

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 generalist"…[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 the point.



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 York: Delacorte.

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).