Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paulo Freire on the Relationship between Colleges and the Community

These days colleges and universities have come under increased scrutiny and criticism for (1) not adequately preparing students for employment upon graduation, and (2) for being too expensive for the average person to afford. So the question has been raised and debated, “Is a college education worth it?” As a faculty member at small, faith-based liberal arts university, I cannot stand aside from this debate since I am both a product and purveyor of higher education. However, it often seems to me that underlying these criticisms and the ensuing debate is another more fundamental issue, which is the relationship between colleges and universities and the communities in which they are located, and say they seek to serve. 

The so-called “Town and Gown” tension has been widely advertised and been the subject or backdrop for any number of books, movies and even television shows like the current hit “How to Get Away with Murder.” At issue is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that institutions of higher education may employ members of the local community, but somehow see themselves aloof, and perhaps separate, from the communities in which they are located. To make matters worse, these non-profit institutions pay no property taxes while occupying large swaths of lands from which  town and city councils could make revenue from if those lands were not so occupied.

In response to this criticism and dilemma, the Carnegie Foundation has developed an award that recognizes colleges and universities that seek to engage and serve their local communities. Students increasingly are encouraged to participate in service learning, internships and volunteer activities designed to serve the local community. There are now academic journals and organizations whose purpose is specifically to highlight university-community engagement. While these are all good things, all too often these efforts seem to use the community as a place of learning, service and research without really connecting in a meaningful way with the people who live in that community.

With these things in mind, I want to share some thoughts from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a standard, though often exoticized, text in many teacher education programs. In a series of letters to his niece, published as Letters to Cristina, Freire comments on the role he believes the university  should have with the wider community beyond its campus. Given the current concerns about the value of higher education, I find his insights to be helpful and even profound.  In the 12th letter of Letters to Cristina, he writes:

[T]he distance between the university (or what is done in it) and the popular classes should be shortened without losing rigor and seriousness, without neglecting the duty of teaching and researching… In order for that to happen the university must, if it hasn’t yet, increasingly become a creation of the city and expand its influence over the whole city. A university foreign to its city, superimposed on it, is a mind-narrowing fiction… [T]he university must start to be identified with its environment in order to move it and not just reproduce it…. These universities should cooperate with the state, towns, popular movements, production cooperatives, social clubs, neighborhood associations, and churches. Through such cooperation, the university could intensify its education action (Letters to Cristina, 1996, p. 133, 134)

What Freire is saying is that a college or university that only sees its mission as educating the students who enter its halls, has too narrow a vision. Learning is not an enterprise of the select few, but is part of what it means to be human. Thus, a university’s mission must extend beyond its walls to the wider community. In an age when local school districts particularly in urban and rural areas struggle financially to offer even the most basic level of education, when arts, music and sports programs are being cut because of lack of funding, and when politicians remain polarized over the role government plays in promoting quality education, institutions of higher education must step in.

In particular Freire sees universities in his native Brazil stepping in and providing teacher enrichment services for overworked and under-prepared teachers. In our U.S. context programs  could be created  to help community residents address local issues and challenges, as well as providing support and succor for movements for social change. For the past several years I have sought to bring my skills and experience to serve local neighborhoods and to be a support for efforts to enrich the quality of life in those places. I have offered my writing and analytical abilities to efforts of activist groups to address social inequities. Yet I have done these things largely without the knowledge or the support of my institution; i.e. it has been on “my own time.” I have often wondered what it would be like to have part of my responsibilities to share my research and teaching opportunities with these communities. What if my courses could involve students with local residents where both students and community folks could be educated by each other. I have done these things by taking my students to these places, but again it has often felt like I have done it in spite of rather than because of my responsibilities as a professor.

Many colleges would contend that they serve the community by the graduates they send into the workforce and the community at large, but Friere would say, and I would agree, that such a vision is far too narrow. In the midst of the current economic disparity, institutions of higher education have both the opportunity and the duty to seek to find ways to concretely and continuously engage with the communities around them and even beyond in the global community in ways that are enriching and life-giving for both. I, for one, would welcome that paradigm shift

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Donald Trump, Howard Beale and “Network” Revisited

 Last night I decided to watch the 1976 award winning film “Network”starring Peter Finch as the crazed, mad-prophet newscaster Howard Beale. Both Finch and Faye Dunaway won Academy Awards in 1976, as did the screenplay. The movie begins with Howard Beale being informed that he was being replaced as the anchor for the evening news program of the fictional television network UBS.  The economy is in a slump, oil prices are rising, there is an air of uncertainty throughout the country and political leaders are not trusted (this is at the time right after the Watergate era and the Vietnam War). As Beale announces that he will be stepping down as the anchor in two weeks, he also proclaims that on his final show he will commit suicide on the air. This causes an uproar among the management of the network. After some back and forth, management decides to give Beale another chance to sign off appropriately and this time he announces that everything he has been talking about for the past 11 years has been bullshit. When he is given a third chance, he asks all of his viewers to go to their windows and shout as loud as they can “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!” Millions of people across the country do as he suggests and overnight Howard Beale has become a cultural sensation.

Meanwhile the young, aggressive director of programming Diana Christenson (played by Faye Dunaway) is watching this. She realizes Howard Beale is a hot commodity and so convinces her bosses to keep Beale on the air as "the mad prophet of television." So night after night Beale goes on ranting and raving about everything from the politicians to the oil companies to berating his viewers for being non-thinking robots who do whatever the people in charge tell them to do. He rants for a couple of minutes and then he feints night after night.  Ratings go through the roof. This show goes on for months until it reaches a crisis that brings the movie to an eerie and troubling climax. I won’t spoil the plot by giving the ending away, only to say that when it was over, I realized that 40 years later “Network” is still a powerfully relevant movie.

In 1976 “Network” was a statement about many things that were going on in the 1970’s, not the least of which was the complete control a few major networks controlled on what was news worth reporting. However, as I watched Beale rant and rave and stir up anger across the land, I could not help but think of Donald Trump and the violence that has begun to characterize his political rallies. Just the day before his campaign had to cancel a rally in Chicago due to the presence of so many protestors. A few days earlier in North Carolina a 78 year old Trump supporter sucker-punched a protestor as he was being led out by police. When asked about such incidents Trump either would say the protestors deserved it or as he said just today, he blamed supportersof Bernie Sanders for the violence; anything but taking responsibility for his divisive, polarizing, hate-filled rhetoric throughout the campaign.

In 1976 the message of “Network” was basically that the media was no longer interested in providing reliable and newsworthy information to the general public, but was about providing entertainment in the guise of news and making money by putting anything on the air that would get people to turn the channel to their station. Likewise the Trump campaign has not sought to offer reasonable solutions to the challenges facing the nation. Trump's  success has been built on his ability to provide a regular stream of outlandish statements and outright lies that made good headlines.

Early on in the primary season, I kept wondering why Trump was getting so much free air time. Then I remembered that long ago I realized that the reporting on political campaigns was not about the issues or fact-checking politicians’ assertions; no, political reporting was about winners and losers and focus on the most extreme and controversial things any politician said.

  • Have you ever wondered how a candidate can be “gaining momentum” leading up to a vote, when no vote has been taken?
  • Have you ever wondered why there is a new poll out almost every day as to which candidate is gaining or losing ground when no vote has been taken?
  • Have you ever wondered why newscasters will report what a candidate has said without actually checking if there is any truth in it?

It is because the media is not helping viewers make informed political decisions when they enter the voting booth; the media sees politics as entertainment and so the more outrageous, the better!

Just like Howard Beale, Trump is cultural phenomenon who has tapped into the frustration, disillusionment, and anger of a certain segment of the population. He makes outlandish statements like he will deport all undocumented immigrants, cause all Muslims to be registered, and “bomb the hell” out of ISIS, as if these are reasonable positions, much less constitutional or remotely feasible. Then he directly and indirectly encourages his followers to violence and blames someone else for the violence when it happens.

Howard Beale was a fictional character 40 years ago, but 40 years before Beale there was a real figure named Adolf Hitler who likewise stirred a nation to anger and insanity, and eventually dragged the whole world into a World War. Adolf Hitler’s end was tragic, as was the end for Howard Beale. What will happen if Trump continues on?

Mainstream Republicans are worried that Trump will become “their candidate.” However, if he does will they seek to stop him, or in the end will they fall in line like lemmings? And will the rest of us sit easy while a mad man stirs many of our citizenry to madness? By speaking out against Trump, I am not painting any other candidate as flawless, but Donald Trump has revealed an ugly side to our country that cannot be ignored.  Regardless what happens to his candidacy, the fact that he has gotten this far is an indictment against all of us who failed to stop him and a media industry that has allowed him to get this far.