In 2012, Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor and a professor, wrote a blog wherein he presented an imaginary commencement speech for college graduates. Considering the skyrocketing price of tuition at American universities coupled with limited job prospects, plummeting wages, and high unemployment for recent graduates, his words of wisdom were concise: "You're f*cked." (Asterisk his-Ed.)
There's been plenty of media attention regarding the high price of tuition in the US. The Financial Times reported US student debt has reached $1 trillion. Here in Korea, they claim after-school educational programs alone are costing families nearly $20 million annually, while university fees cost about a quarter of the average family's yearly income per child.
But, the high cost of education is only one issue casting a shadow over today's educational system and academia in general. Despite facing global issues that require decisive and controversial solutions—war, human trafficking, financial inequality and insecurity, and the myriad of environmental catastrophes resulting from global warming—today's breed of tenured scholars and public intellectuals consistently fail to stand up to the power structure apparently out of ignorance or for fear of risking their jobs, funding, or reputation.
The picture behind the scenes of education described by most insiders is one of backstabbing, gossip, and intrigue. But, the picture on the outside is one of optimism and affirmation of the status quo. The popular TED conferences exemplify this trend. Rather than promoting the type of vigorous critical debate needed in these dire times, TED presents a world where everything is awesome, creativity is trending, and the technologists and business men are about to fix everything. The most appalling or even stupid ideas follow, without questioning, on the heals of rather important ideas leaving them all feeling a bit too out of context.
And in formal academia, the trend is toward open propaganda. Many people took note of the minor skirmishes a few years ago over textbooks and curriculum design between the scientific community and the intelligent design movement. Fewer noticed the Arizona law that banned a high school Mexican-American studies course. Recently students in Colorado have actually started a walk-out campaign in protest against proposed curriculum changes that would require schools to teach only "positive aspects" of American history and avoid material that would condone "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."
Academics who question the status quo have reason to be concerned for their careers. Norman Finkelstein, a leading scholar and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, became the target of a smear campaign by Alan Dershowitz in 2005 due his critical scholarship against the state of Israel. The dispute effectively ended Finkelstein's career. More recently Professor Steven Salaita lost a job offer at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign due to a series of tweets (that medium alone is perhaps a commentary on the contemporary state of academia) critical of the recent conflict in Gaza. Perhaps this is why, despite living at a moment when drastic change is needed and clearly in the air, a leading philosopher like Michael Sandel offers criticism of capitalism while still praising it as the best alternative, and even nominal communists like Slavoj Zizek makes statements, as he did in an interview last year in Groove, that a return to Communism would be "ridiculous." Instead he offers nothing more than a critique on the "limits of global capitalism."
In The Post American #10--The Education Issue, we offer plenty of criticism, but also some solutions. First, and perhaps foremost, boycott the system. Bypass the escalating fees by banning the degree. Technology has made education accessible, yet degrees are still for profit and sought usually for little more than a boost in salary. Degrees imply an arbitrary end to learning, a process that ought to be personal and ongoing. Alternatives exist that can boost learning, save money, and help solve the real problems that we face today. The textbook before you offers an examination of propaganda in the Korean educational context, a handy lesson on writing Korean in English, and a tribute to the dropouts. Raise your hands if you have any questions.
Issue 10 cover by Olivia McNair.