Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

Digital and Political Divides

I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (link to PDF here). Jenkins and his team at Project New Media Literacies speak of the need to prepare people to critically consume and — even more importantly — to produce new creative forms of media for broad distribution within new participatory technologies.

And simultaneously, I’ve been reading of the profound ways in which these  participatory technologies are changing political life.

In the presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s use of the web enabled them to bypass TV networks, party structures, and major fundraisers to build  grassroots support and transparent communication in ways that will also now shape how the Obama administration governs.

And this past weekend, the user-generated website Join the Impact was central to rapidly organizing the  international grassroots protests against California’s passage of Prop 8, “astonishing long-time activists with the power and speed with which [the web] gets their message out” according to the New York Times.

So when it’s with consternation that I read Jenkins’ warnings of new forms of the digital divide. Jenkins writes of the new “participation gap”:  As policy makers have counted computers in schools toward the goal of providing “access” to technology to all kids, middle-class kids, with unfettered access to computers, adult support, and broadband at home are using computers in ways inaccessible to kids whose access it limited to public, filtered computer networks at schools and libraries.

Jenkins writes:

More often than not, those youth who have developed the most comfort with the online word are the ones who dominate classroom use of computers, pushing aside the less technically skilled classmates.  We would be wrong, however, to see this as a simple binary: youth how have technological access and those who do not. [Researchers] note, for example, that game systems make their way into growing number of working-class homes, even if laptops and personal computers do not.  Working-class youth may have access some of the benefits of play described here, but they may still lack the ability to produce and disseminate their own media.

In these new political times, technological savvy is enfranchisement.  And enfranchisement should not be dependent upon the resources that one happens to have at home.
And when I go to my teach my tech class tomorrow, I’ll again hear of computers gathering dust in the corners of classrooms in diverse schools, because no one knows how to use them, because they don’t work, because they’re considered an “extra”, because in schools, people have not yet caught on to the cultural shifts of this new participatory media culture.

Spreading the Wealth

Tax breaks at the top as a means for creating jobs and sustaining the well-being of workers and their families?

We need not speculate about how effective this has been — or will be.

From the Center for Economic and Policy Research, via Lane Kentworthy at Consider the Evidence:

Economic Indicator 2000 2008
Unemployment rate Image4.0% 6.1%
Inflation rate Image3.3% 5.4%
Job Growth (preceding 8 years)
Total nonfarm employment Image21.4% 4.3%
Private sector employment Image23.6% 3.6%
Manufacturing employment Image2.9% -22.2%
Employment rate (% of population)
All, age 16 and older Image64.4% 62.6%
Men, age 16 and older Image71.9% 69.1%
Women, age 16 and older Image57.5% 56.5%
Real wage growth (preceding 8 years) Image8.2% 1.8%
Minimum wage (July 2008$) Image$6.58 $6.55
Family income
Median, 2007$ $61,083 Image$61,355
Growth (preceding 8 years) Image14.7% 0.4%
Rate (% of population) Image11.3% 12.5%
People in poverty (millions) Image31.6 37.3
Uninsured (health insurance)
Rate (% of population) Image14.0% 15.3%
People without insurance  (millions) Image38.7 45.7
Personal savings (% of disposable income) Image2.3% 0.6%
College tuition (average per year, 2007$)
Private four-year college Image$19,337 $23,712
Public four-year college Image$4,221 $6,185
Gasoline (gallon, 2008$) Image$2.03 $4.09
GDP growth (preceding 8 years) Image34.2% 19.6%
Productivity growth (preceding 8 years) 15.9% Image21.9%
Trade balance (% of GDP) Image-3.9% -5.1%
Federal debt (% of GDP) Image57.3% 65.5%
Net foreign debt (% of GDP) Image13.6% 17.9%

While you were out …

I’m back from a few weeks away (nothing like pedaling long distances day after day in hot, hilly terrain to make one forget that one even owns a computer) to the now-ritualistic slog through the digital aggregate awaiting my return.

Some gems that I’ve uncovered so far:

  • Mike Rose’s eloquent examination of the cheap ridicule of community organizing in Republican campaign speeches and the lost opportunity for educating the citizenry about the place of organizing in American civic life.
  • Lane Kentworthy’s straightforward representation of the very slow growth of median family income relative to overall economic growth, as more of the economic spoils go to those at the top.

I was very pleased, also, to find a number of new commentors who posted while I was gone.  Welcome, and keep talking!

And now, with one last glance at that photo of the view of the top of that last long climb, it’s back to the email, to the blog aggregator, to my calendar that grows more full the hour.