Perspectives: A Review of 2013
(Swans - December 16, 2013) Well, 2013 for me has been a year of both progress and stagnation. As a community college teacher, I have challenged young minds in the subject of history while also enabling them to draw parallels to the present. One obvious parallel is the current recession. Yes, I still say recession because although we no longer have the big banks standing on the precipice of disaster, their golden parachute has been the taxpayer: not only through the bailouts but the willfulness of that industry to suppress job growth. That suppressed job growth could perhaps lead us to another recession if things do not turn around soon. The parallel of history is the financial collapse in the aftermath of the crash of 1929 and subsequent government attempts to bail out the financial sector after the myriad bank failures that occurred in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the break from that parallel -- welfare for the financial industry -- is that our current government seems to think that job growth should be left up to the market, contrary to the government of the 1930s, which stepped into the chaos and put people back to work through numerous work programs.
I have written much this year on the current crisis of the humanities in higher education and the corporatization of academia, and I have written from the point of view that it would be a mistake for the humanities to scientize their content as we have seen with the growing movement in the digital humanities and various attempts to cook up new fields such as the history of science, the history of technology, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of technology. As someone who has studied these fields, I am not a hypocrite as a critic of these developments. Unfortunately, these fields rely on postmodern and deconstruction theory far too much for their own good. I find it amazing that Derrida and Foucault still seem to have nine lives in the academy when we can really confine these thinkers to the realm of skepticism. Why so, you may ask? These thinkers deny knowledge in itself or truth in itself, which is at odds with scientific inquiry. If knowledge or truth can be denied, then we can only conclude that our sense experiences of the world truly yield nothing of it: that our perceptions correspond to no objective reality whatsoever. While science is not in the business of making arguments for the existence of an objective reality, it assumes that our perceptions do correspond to an actual state of affairs. Yet if that naïve realism is to be rejected or if that state of affairs is thought of as a "construction" or "product of socialization," then the truths of science have no force.
But back to the issue of historical parallels or the lack thereof. We know that during the Great Depression, many artists and writers -- those schooled in the human disciplines -- could find jobs, whether it was through entities such as the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, or other government work programs. Government then not only saw the value of using artists and writers to educate the public but also of using them to build the country's infrastructure. Unfortunately, that has not happened after the Great Recession as many a history major, philosophy major, or English or literature major has graduated from college either into joblessness or a minimum wage, part-time position. Our bridges are falling, our train tracks have degraded, and our roads have fallen into disrepair: all in supposedly the greatest country in the world. There is something wrong with this picture and unfortunately, government is content, along with Wall Street, to let these conditions persist.
2013 was a year in which adjunct faculty began to organize in light of college and university attempts to either cut their adjunct faculty jobs or hours to comply with Obamacare. I was an adjunct faculty member who participated in adjunct organization because I saw my hours and eventually my teaching jobs cut away. We still have a long way to go but I hope that we can reduce the specter of adjunct faculty -- college educated teachers -- living on food stamps, living in a cardboard box, and dying penniless after educating generations of students. The story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct who taught for 25 years at Duquesne University and died penniless, was a rallying cry for adjuncts who have been abused by higher education in its quest to pay adjuncts far less than their worth and cheat them out of subsidizing their health insurance.
Of course, technology has a way of inserting itself into just about any debate about the future of society. This year saw the rise of MOOCs -- massive online courses -- that colleges and universities are using to phase out live instruction (and therefore faculty positions) altogether. The danger of these courses is that eventually, we could have an education system premised on the notion that a living, breathing teacher is no longer necessary or helpful in facilitating learning. This is a sad development because it threatens to eliminate graduate education altogether: with no experienced teachers to educate students, students may not be able to grasp or comprehend knowledge that is not found in the textbook. The college teacher brings his or her wealth of knowledge to the classroom to supplement the textbook and without that, I believe that the critical mission of education will be lost.
Digitization and virtual realities threaten to poison us all. With 2013, we have witnessed the dominance of social media in our national conversation and what is unfortunate is that in terms of news stories in the traditional media, now we have Twitter feeds or Facebook posts that become news stories in themselves. Digital charlatans such as Mark Zuckerberg, who has now taken Bill Gates's mantle in trying to technologize education (I think it is rather hilarious that they see themselves as serious educational reformers when neither one of them finished college), seem to think that the ability to write code or build cell phone apps that are compatible with existing social media are the only types of worthwhile knowledge to know. The digital for these techvangelists has almost become more than God but rather a necessity that we should all praise and promote. For them, technology needs no justification or critical examination: it needs only to be accepted and used by all, regardless of whether it is truly needed. The problem, however, with these techvangelists who are also education "reformers" is that these technologies often interfere with education. I have seen this firsthand while teaching: I always have to get students to put their iPods or iPhones away or to quit perusing Facebook while in class.
I sincerely hope 2014 becomes less of a digital time and we get back to basics: the human condition and human values. Once we begin a critical examination of the role of technology in our lives and how we have come to depend upon it, we can begin to put it in its proper place.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
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