Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let the competition commence!

I have been to a few commencement ceremonies, and recently I had the privilege of attending my sister's graduation from community college. On the whole, I have noticed a few constants: there are the student speeches, which usually sound as if they are reciting the menu to a restaurant they have never been to; parents engaged in a great deal of vulgar hooting when their child's name is read, as if he were the academic equivalent of Albert Pujols or Justin Bieber; the students, basking in this temporary, ritualized sort of celebrity.

Another feature is the "elder statesman" speech. Often, though not always, delivered by some political figure of stature, its content is strictly dictated by an unspoken but pervasive formula. It begins with a word or two of background, to the effect of, "We live in a rapidly changing, globalized world." There is certainly some truth to this, and the students feel a twinge of pleasurable recognition of this idea so often repeated by the media, political figures, and in other fora of public opinion. This is quickly followed by what we might call the education-as-international-competition trope: "And America needs well educated citizens to compete with the rest of the world." One might even get the impression that this is all America needs education for, and, were it not for this Hobbesean international arena, we would much rather be doing something else. The point is usually driven home with a tricolon: "We must out-research, out-develop, and out-work the rest of the world."

"We're ready to crush the world!"
This picture of the international economy as a zero-sum scramble for scarce resources is far more blatant in its aggression than most of the signals the academy sends on these issues. Schools on every level talk a good game about forming tolerant, enlightened global citizens. Perhaps all that is supposed to mean is, "We intend to form you to feel comfortable going anywhere in the world to set up the system that will allow America to win and exploit their natural resources," whether with the help of a briefcase or a bayonet. You will be prepared to function as a cog in the global technocracy that will allow us, dadgum it, to win!

It does not seem difficult to imagine a different message that could be sent at commencement -- a different portrait, one of America in need of educated citizens to help it cooperate with and understand the rest of the world for the sake of common goals, like peace and justice. Citizens to help us live within our environmental means in a way that leads to thrift, abundance and a just distribution of resources. Then we could truly "begin."

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