RL: Tell me a little about your background and what lead you to your dissertation topic, which delves primarily into the function of writing in higher education.
SM: I began in education as a professional filmmaker. I got a job at NYU back in 2000 teaching film, which I had never done before. I loved the cognitive form of teaching. Give someone a film camera, bust it open, show them how to load it. The way in which the human brain works in terms of the learning process was very interesting. I went back to college, got my undergrad, went immediately and got my masters, then went to UCONN in their PhD Program and ended up getting a masters in political science. What really happened through the whole process is I really fell in love with teaching more so than research. I ended up at the University of Hartford in the doctoral program there. One of the things in terms of my teaching that I noticed was that academic skills weren’t really being taught. This was one of the big reasons that I saw students were struggling. I started to get interested in the idea of writing across the curriculum, in that a lot of schools were pushing that, but pushing the lip service of it.
In your dissertation you look at how writing in secondary education has been marginalized by what you call the “research enterprise” in the last 50 years. Can you give a little background to the rise of this phenomenon?
The research enterprise is really about what they call in higher education “publish or perish”. If you don’t publish, you’re done. Many academics or scholars are predominantly good at publishing articles, but what they get paid for is teaching classes. Education departments are predominantly focused on training people for k-12. There isn’t really any education for higher education. There is a built-in skillset that most instructors feel that the students should have coming into college, but with the changing of demographics and student populations where everyone’s going to college, that just isn’t really feasible, you’re just passing the buck. Even if you do happen have the skillset coming into college, wouldn’t you be coming to college to make it better? It’s like saying you should know how to write college term papers coming out of high school. That’s a fallacy.
So you mention that this has been the phenomenon primarily in the last 50 years. I also note that in the last 50 years we’ve seen a really intense period of international competition, especially in the case of western capitalist nations trying to dominate over communist or other non-capitalist ideologies. Do you think this cultural focus is related to the lack of focus on writing?
I don’t know ideologically, but I will say that the capitalism is largely the reason why this phenomenon has taken place. Now it’s more about pushing you through as fast as we can rather than teaching you anything. I don’t think that higher education is really a learning institution anymore as much as it is a certificate institution. It’s the DMV of life, and how many people who are driving are good at it? What I learned in teaching film is that you can really watch students grow through a semester by practically applying their skills. I want the same thing from written subjects. I want to see students craft, express themselves, and be confident in their abilities and their ideas, rather than handing me a paper at the end of the semester that I have not taught them, or discussed with them anything about. By assigning 40-50% of the grade to that paper, I felt like I was basically saying “yeah you’re in my class, now do everything on your own”.
In the Marxian sense of capitalism creating its own gravediggers, do you think that this phenomenon and the methodology that underpins it is contributing to the downfall of the University as a critical institution?
Yes, I do. There is a really good book right now that I’m reading to review, by Martin Parker called Shut Down the Business School. What he argues is, we’re so afraid to question authority, we’re so afraid in scholarship to question the powers that be because the powers hold the funding.
It’s like what Marimba Ani talks about in Yurugu: European culture is geared towards this idea of objectivity or a “scientific” or “academic” framing to thought, meaning that the truth is treated as a thing that can be objective or can be achieved by using a specific method. It’s dictating the parameters of the discussion to the zeitgeist.
That’s been a problem in theory departments, the need to make an exact science out of anything. Its Orwellian. Just because something is quantitatively feasible, doesn’t mean it’s correct. The downfall of higher education will be capitalism. You can make a Marxist analysis of what has happened to higher education in America in terms of academic sorting. Giving grades is a form of classism. If you have the means, you can pretty much get into anywhere regardless of your grades. I do think there is a sort of classist mentality of who instructors are going to pay attention to, and who they are not going to pay attention to. American education is broken, what higher education has the opportunity to do is fix that. Bring us everybody and we’ll educate them. The reason that higher education doesn’t do that under capitalism is they don’t see a profit.
Henry Giroux argues in America’s Addiction to Terrorism that higher education under neoliberalism has dissolved into a workforce training system, primarily to funnel capital into the hands of the financial elite. Like you said before, a certificate institution.
One of the things that higher education is controlled by are capitalist managers who are looking for people to come to work and not question what’s going on. I think the key to writing is what it does for ALL students. Once they learn how to do it, writing is a way to empower their own minds. The ability to put something on paper that anybody can read is a way of deconstructing structural inequality. If we don’t empower people coming out of college then they’re never going to become empowered, so they’re never going to question authority. You can get a job, but you don’t necessarily have the tools to make any change. I don’t think you’ll ever get anybody to say that that’s purposeful, but I do think it is intentional.
Critical theory exists as a toolkit yet it is the first thing on the chopping block. Marxism exists as an inherently critical theory by its relationship to capitalism, specifically as a response to the bourgeois French and American revolutions in the century preceding its creation. Giroux mentions that the McCarthy era was a time, particularly post-war, when restrictions were placed on freedom of speech for leftist or communist professors. Angela Davis for example. It’s dangerous to them.
That tradition goes all the way back to the Enlightenment, to the power of the Church. Critical thinking is to me when you take a single phenomenon and you rip it apart and put it back together in a different way so you understand all of the parts. Anybody can sit down and do that. I think all critical thinking needs to be personally developed. There is no universal mind. What I think most power structures are afraid of, and this is what I think Marx referred to, is critical thinking of the masses. I think we need more Max Eastmans, the editor of The Masses, a great publication for its time. PM press has a subscription where you pay 30 dollars a month and you get all their books. We need more of that, where people contribute to what is being said. But when publications do this they struggle to stay together. I like the idea of contributing to the spreading of ideas and listening to other ideas. The social theory of Marx is something we can really learn from. Capitalism is, we may not see it in our time, but at some point it’s going to falter. Capitalism is directly dependent on social inequality in order to survive. It isn’t meant to serve the masses, it’s meant to serve the top. So how can you have a model with that in place? Everyone says “you have free opportunity,” “anyone can be Trump,” but they can’t.
It’s only supported in the mythos and by the rhetorical framework of the country.
So that’s what they think. People are afraid when you take away capitalism you are taking away their ability to become Trump. They defend the idea that the government can’t impede their ability to become that, even though they probably will never become that anyway. They want the myth to exist but they don’t realize, or maybe they do realize, that they’re never going to get it.
It’s interesting how it connects to who were previously the primary patrons of academia, the petit bourgeois. People who can afford to go to school also tend to be the people that buy into this system, because it works just enough for them to sort of accept it and feel that it is natural.
Look at the labor movement, with the AFL. When the American Federation of Labor began, they weren’t willing to take any laborer, or anyone that wasn’t a white “craftsman,” there was that elitism there. Then the CIO, the Knights of Labor, and the IWW were for laborers, there was a working class ideology that they also committed themselves to that the AFL was not willing to. Lenin has probably one of the best takes on imperialism and capitalism. He looks at this and he says, capitalism is the best tool for imperialism because if you have capital and are spreading that capital, that creates the imperialist moment where you displace people. NYU did this in the East Village. They had the capital so they spread it around the Village until they owned the whole Village. That’s imperialism.
These imperialist structures are even more pervasive now than they were at the height of colonialism. In that we have established structures of “world order” such as NATO, the UN, the IMF that are based around supporting the existing white, European power structure. I look at something like the global war on terror which brings the imperialism of the United States to a perpetual worldwide stage. It also redresses itself as cultural imperialism in the United States in terms of making the culture more authoritarian and more militarist under the guise of national security.
The propping up of it is a big problem. I’m amazed that higher education has moved in the other direction, not a place to deconstruct cultural inefficiencies or inequalities. There is an incessant need to prop the American experience up as being the greatest in the world. That to me is just incredibly irresponsible. I think that higher education has to be the center of cultural integrity and not used as a way to support nationalism. I don’t see it existing in terms of Russo’s model of liberalism. There are really great anarchist ideas out there, but how do we put those ideas into action? We never get to that. The reason we don’t get to that place is that higher education doesn’t give every younger generation the confidence to do so. You need to fit, not change. That’s the problem with service learning. It’s about teaching professionalism, and it’s unprofessional to question the person you are working for. The patriotic nature of the US is a false construct for so many other things that are embedded in hate. You can say one thing about any nationalist movement: they’re all exclusionist. It’s very hard to exclude people in the US, because it doesn’t have any roots. The roots of the continent were destroyed by imperialism. Keeping people from Colombia out of the US is kind of stupid because they have more of a right to the American soil than Europeans. We never have these conversations. We keep building more and more walls. Every brick is a brick of our own superiority. We’re becoming imperialist isolationists.
It’s as if all these discussions have to exist without any context to the history. I don’t think you can understand the refugee crisis without understanding US imperialism in South and Central America, going back to the Spanish American war, or before the US even existed, to Spanish colonization. It’s been going on so long you can’t even make a comprehensive list. Even in higher education we’re so divorced from these things.
There is no willingness to question our own history as much as we purport. I want students that I work with to look at every piece of history and ask, what was this really about? Who did it benefit? Who paid the price? To your point, our takeover of Cuba prior to the Spanish American war was a product of fear of Haiti because they were a Black nation.
Who overthrew their slave masters, while slavery was still strong in the United States
Exactly, if that level of revolution happened here, the White supremacist doctrine that the United States was founded on would be questioned a lot earlier. Instead we got Roosevelt, who with his capitalist managers, stifled revolution. They were afraid of real change, so they implemented their kind of change. People in power never make change unless it benefits them.