Alienation 101

I never thought I’d feel this way, but thank god I went to college in the 1980s. Every day when I pick up the newspaper (and yes, I am one of those fossils who reads it in pulp form), it has some new story about how even the most enjoyable educational experiences have become yet more soul-sucking means to derive profit and manage time efficiently. College is becoming more and more homogenized, corporatized and, frankly, stupefying.

Last week I read about how due to budget considerations, even many private universities are placing video cameras in the classroom so that courses in everything from physics to philosophy can be broadcast online to hundreds, or even thousands, of students sitting in their dorm rooms wearing jammies.

I’m all for online classes for those who choose to continue their schooling while working or who live far from a campus. But forcing online classes on those scrimping and working to pay full fare while living on or near campus is a ripoff for both faculty and students. Even the stats say so.

According to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning that appeared in the New York Times, “online education is exploding: 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier… . A large majority — about three million — were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses.” Not surprisingly, students who have to sit and stare at a screen on their own not only do worse, but they also let unwatched classes pile up till the last minute.

Today, we can add remote-control clickers to cyberschooling—a concept that is so vile and alienating that I broke into a rant about it with a total stranger on the subway. The student sitting next to me practically wept describing his own classroom clicker tale of woe. These little remote-control nods to scientific management are either sold to students ($40–$60 each) or loaned to them, and each one is set to a student’s unique frequency that records when he or she enters the classroom, like punching a time clock.

Some professors, including one tweedy tool who teaches at my own alma mater, Northwestern University, uses clickers to give yes/no pop quizzes one minute after class is scheduled to begin. How mind-numbing. Clickers can also track whether students are grasping a concept. I suppose having a student raise her hand and ask a question is now outmoded, after all, why engage in human interaction when technology can relieve us of those pesky group conversations.

One aspect of alienation that Marx described was the way tools that humans design come to take over our lives, and instead of easing our labors they enslave us and drain away joy and creativity. Marx wrote about it quite eloquently: “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it. The new-fangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by loss of character.”

Marx, meet the classroom clicker.

I loved being a college student in the 1980s. It’s where my worldview evolved from loosey-goosey liberalism to socialism; where I interacted with people from all over. Some became famous, like my freshman roommate, the world-renowned composer, Augusta Read Thomas—she was Gusty when we shared a bunk bed; and Stephen Colbert, who was flamboyantly funny with his rainbow scarf and theatrical demeanor.

Most went on to quieter lives and I admire them intensely. Some write and edit socialist papers, books and magazines—Elizabeth, Alan, Lee, Lance and others who are super smart and insightful and they were really the ones who educated me about how to break out of my narrow existence and learn to grasp the world from other perspectives.

Day-to-day human interaction with professors, who, unlike today’s army of adjuncts, were financially compensated to allow them the opportunity to explain ancient Greek declensions and argue about Reconstruction, may not have fit neatly into some Fordist time management efficiency scheme, but they did enrich my life. No doubt, the Greek lessons played some role in my snagging a decent editorial job, and Black history led me to help mobilize my classmates against apartheid South Africa then and the death penalty now.

I’m not making an appeal to luddism. I’ve come to appreciate the joys of my Mac over my Smith Corona—even though I managed to score one with a nifty correction-ribbon. It’s that in any sane and healthy society, human interaction and conversation aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities. You can’t Tweet, text, click or Facebook a real democratic discussion and debate. Nothing will ever replace humans sitting around in real time having conversations, debating and learning from each other.

Perhaps that’s the point of all these scientific management principles applied to education—to eliminate the means for democracy.

SHERRY WOLF is the author of Sexuality and Socialism. She blogs at Sherry Talks Back.



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