Composition’s Economic Silence

Our word “liberal” — as in the term “liberal education” — comes from the Latin root word for “free,” liber, via its derivative liberalis, meaning either generous or noble, or, more broadly, pertaining to or worthy of a free man. It is important to note, however, that the Roman class status of the free man (a citizen) was quite different from the class status of the freedman (a former slave). In literature, the most famous Roman freedman (libertinus) is the wealthy and hilariously vulgar Trimalchio of Petronius’s Satyricon, a character easily recognizable even today as embodying the most distasteful aspects of the nouveau riche: massive economic privilege combined with a complete lack of cultural sophistication. According to Harold Johnston’s 1903 The Private Lives of the Romans, “neither the freedman nor his son could attain true social equality with the free citizen,” despite the fact that

The free persons employed in the offices of the various magistrates were mostly libertini. They were paid by the State, and, though appointed nominally for a year only, they seem to have held their places practically during good behavior. This was largely due to the shortness of the term of the regular magistrates and the rarity of re-election. Having no experience themselves in conducting their offices, the magistrates would have all the greater need of thoroughly trained and experienced assistants. The highest class of these officials formed an ordo, the scribae, whose name gives no adequate notion of the extent and importance of their duties. All that is now done by cabinet officers, secretaries, department heads, bureau chiefs, auditors, comptrollers, recorders, and accountants, down to the work of the ordinary clerks and copyists, was done by these ‘scribes.’ (The “Civil Service”)

The libertini carried on the economic work of the Roman empire, and yet for that reason, they were considered not to have the quality of being “liberal”: according to Volume 1 of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia, “The expression artes liberales [. . .] does not mean arts as we understand the word at this present day, but [. . .] are called liberal [. . .] because they serve the purpose of training the free man, in contrast with the artes illiberales, which are pursued for economic purposes” (Knight, Lafort, Farley). Precisely because the liberal arts have no immediate practical or economic utility, they are considered appropriate for those fortunate enough to have been born of high (free) social status, and inappropriate for those who have attained social status via upward class mobility: they are declared to be somehow above economic concerns because of the very way in which they are embedded within economic concerns.

After two thousand years, we still use the word “liberal” in describing the “liberal arts education” offered by many elite colleges and universities. Clark Kerr quotes Cardinal Newman’s vision of a liberal arts university education that “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life” (3). According to Kerr, such an understanding came out of Newman’s experience at Oxford, and constituted the historically English model of the university dedicated to providing education for men of culture. At less elite colleges and universities, we understand — at institutions perhaps unable to rise above merely economic concerns — the liberal arts are referred to as the “humanities.” This is the term used by Sharon Crowley, who remarks that “The point of a humanist education, after all, is to become acquainted with the body of canonical texts that humanists envision as a repository of superior intellectual products of Western culture” (13), or Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said.” In these characterizations of a certain type of education, we see still the Romans’ strange tension of declaring something free from the scope of economic concerns because of its very relation to those concerns.

Kerr, however, argues that much of Newman’s vision for American higher education was succeeded by that of Abraham Flexner, in which research replaced teaching as the focus, and universities split into individual departments and added research institutes and research libraries. These were universities on the German model, which found their first American expression in Johns Hopkins. Such universities, with their corporate funding for research beneficial to the interests of industry, are a major force in American higher education today: for examples, Sarah Bonewits and Lawrence Soley direct our attention to the University of Maine’s industry-funded Lobster Institute, “the computer-industry-funded Center for VDT and Health Research at Johns Hopkins,” the University of Missouri’s “National Center for Responsive Gaming, a research center funded by the gambling industry,” and the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, with “an annual budget exceeding $13 million, which comes primarily from government and automobile manufacturers and suppliers” (83-84). Here, the economic interests are far more clearly visible than in the liberal education model.

According to Kerr, “Newman’s ‘Idea of a University’ still has its devotees — chiefly the humanists and the generalists and the undergraduates. Flexner’s ‘Idea of a Modern University’ still has its supporters — chiefly the scientists and the specialists and the graduate students” (6). But both views have been largely supplanted (or, perhaps more appropriately, subsumed) by the uniquely American service-oriented university, which owes so much of its character to the Morrill act of 1862: “The land grant movement brought schools of agriculture and engineering [. . . ], of home economics and business administration; opened the doors of universities to the children of farmers and workers, as well as of the middle and upper classes; introduced agricultural experiment stations and service bureaus” (Kerr 12). Here, then, are the directly practical concerns of the Roman freedmen’s artes illiberales; the explicitly economic focus of what Ira Shor, James Berlin, Stanley Aronowitz, and others have called the “vocational education” model of the university.

Aronowitz would seem to make more explicit Kerr’s concerns about the ways in which economics have shaped American higher education, contending that “Even for those schools that lay claim to the liberal intellectual tradition, the insistent pressure from many quarters to define themselves as sites of job preparation has [. . .] clouded their mission and their curriculum”, and going on to suggest that “Perhaps the most urgent questions today concern whether the academic system has a genuine role in providing the space for learning, whether or not its curricula are useful to the corporate order” (125). In this light, Aronowitz’s observation that “The classical expectation — enunciated eloquently by Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, John Dewey, and more recently, by the civil rights and feminist movements — that in addition to economic opportunity, education may help usher in a more democratic society has, for the time being, vanished from the debate” to the point where “knowledge production and transmission must now justify itself in terms of its economic value or risk oblivion” (123) becomes somewhat disturbing, particularly when we understand that “higher education is an economic and cultural marker that retains its value only if it is a scarce commodity” (118). Aronowitz isn’t the only one pushing such a perspective: Hobbs and Berlin note that “The modern high school and the modern comprehensive university took their shapes as part of an economic shift from a laissez-faire market economy of unbridled individual competition to a managed economy of corporate and government alliances and planning” (249), and at the end of the twentieth century, “Tensions over escalating demands for literacy accompanying global capitalism and developments in global communication and information technology continued to increase emphasis on literacy” (282) in higher education to the point where “Most governmental and business support of electronic literacy is geared to workplace writing to improve global competitiveness in the marketplace” (287).

The above evidence indicates that every model of American higher education includes an inescapable economic component — but at this point, perhaps it’s best to clarify matters by defining that term. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary names economics as “the science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind” or as “financial considerations” ( ). N. Gregory Mankiw, the Chair of President George W. Bush’s Board of Economic Advisors, is more concise: “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources” (3). The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary describes economics as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the production and distribution of wealth in theory and practice; the application of this discipline to a particular sphere; the condition of a State etc. as regards material prosperity; the financial considerations attaching to a particular activity, commodity, etc.” (789), and we see some of this range in economist J. K. Gibson-Graham’s suggestion that “Somewhat more than the sum of its parts, the economy includes money, markets, commodities, wealth, industry, labor, enterprise, finance, investment, employment, consumption, production, credit, debt, competition, monopoly, and development” (1).

Contrasting the varying curricular purposes of institutions of American higher education offers some economic insight to the workings of those institutions. Examining the economic differences among students (and non-students) of those institutions may offer further insight. According to analyses of 1999 United States Census Data published in the journal Postsecondary Education Opportunity, college participation rates across quartiles of family income differed radically. In the bottom quartile of family incomes, 38.3% of dependent 18- to 24-year-olds reached college; in the second quartile, 58.6%; in the third quartile, 69.2%, and in the top quartile, 78.5%: in other words, “a student from the top quartile was twice as likely to reach college compared to a student from the bottom quartile” (April 2001 4). Matters grow even worse when we consider not just college participation, but college completion: “In 1999 the estimated bachelor’s degree attainment rates by family income were as follows: Bottom quartile, 8.5%; Second quartile, 13.0%; Third quartile, 25.3%; Top quartile, 61.3%”: in other words, “A student from the top quartile of family income was about seven times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than was a student born into a bottom quartile family income” (April 2001 6). Furthermore, this inequality is part of a worsening trend: while the college completion rate for students from the top quartile of family income increased by 17.4% between 1970 and 2001, the college completion rate for students from the bottom quartile of family income actually decreased by 5% (September 2003 17). The editors of Postsecondary Education Opportunity suggest that this is due to an immense shift in higher education from the 1965 Higher Education Act to today; a shift “from grants to loans” and “from need to merit” (April 1999 1), citing as support their analysis of the data from the 1995-1996 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study:

  • Up to about $40,000 in family income, students receive financial aid packages from institutions plus family contributions that fall about $3000 short of meeting costs of college attendance.
  • Between $40,000 and $50,000 of family income, unmet financial need drops to about $1100 per student.
  • Between $50,000 and $60,000 of family income, students receive about as much aid as they need.
  • Above $60,000 per year, the financial needs of students are substantially overmet, rising to an average of $14,232 beyond need for aided students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 per year. (October 1999 3-4)

Clearly, economic factors have a profound effect on who gets to attend and graduate from college.

So, too, does college have a profound economic effect on those who earn a degree. According to U.S. Census data, the average 1993 family income of a high school graduate was $39,242, while the average 1993 family income of a college graduate, at $80,098, more than doubled that amount. The editors of Postsecondary Education Opportunity use the estimated average cost of college tuition to put this disparity into a cost/benefit perspective, and concluded that — for 1999 College Board and Census data — a bachelor’s degree earned from a public four-year institution would result in an average return of $26.46 in increased lifetime income for each $1.00 spent on that bachelor’s degree, when compared to the lifetime income of a high school graduate (November 2000 1). For return on investment, twenty-six hundred percent is difficult to beat. When we connect these disparities of [‘in’? ‘concerning’?] what people get out of school with the above-described disparities over [‘in’? ‘concerning’?] who gets in to school, higher education seems to be a site that reinforces economic inequality in deeply troubling ways.

As a discipline, composition has long concerned itself with problems of inequality. Howard Tinberg suggests that in “its progressive commitment to social action and open access, composition has spent considerable capital advocating the interests of the less powerful and the less privileged” (353), and Sharon O’Dair writes of the discipline that “our pedagogy should be counterhegemonic, the literacy our students achieve should be critical, and all of us should seek positive change in our communities, indeed in the world” (593). Having gone through the brief rehearsal above of some of the ways in which economic concerns intersect with higher education, I want to now turn my attention to composition in particular, and ask: how does composition understand its own disciplinary relation to economic concerns?

While it’s a crude initial heuristic, searching composition-related journals for articles with variants of the words “economy” or “economic” in the title helps give an introductory idea of how composition talks about economic issues in the five results it returns. Of these results, Herbert Addison’s focus on composition textbook in his 1972 CCC article “Books and Bucks: The Economics of College Textbook Publishing” is beyond the classroom scope of this dissertation. Helen Sard Hughes’s 1922 English Journal article “English, Economics, and Literature” invokes the word “economics” in its title only as a portion of an argument (anticipating the same argument made by Maxine Hairston in “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing” by seventy years) that composition teachers ought not to ask that students write essays having to do with economics and other topics upon which the teacher may be less than expert. Clarence Thorpe and Vara Neverow-Turk take the opposite position, both making an argument — sixty years apart — for the importance of relevant contemporary topics in the classroom. However, the “economy” of Clarence Thorpe’s 1931 English Journal article “Economy in Teaching Composition” is merely a synonym for efficiency , while the subtitle of Vara Neverow-Turk’s 1991 CCC essay “Researching the Minimum Wage: A Moral Economy for the Classroom” refers both to the topic her students write about and to what she perceives as the moral imperative of asking students to write on topics that engage them.

From that crude heuristic, then, we are left with a single article that directly addresses how economic issues intersect not simply with the content of composition instruction but with composition instruction itself. Arthur Coon’s 1947 College English essay “An Economic X Marks the Spot” is an avuncular and masculinist teaching parable, featuring the blond-haired New Instructor and the resignedly wry and wise Old Hand, who tells the New Instructor to “Sit down, son, and have a cigarette. The time has come to discuss the facts of life in an English Department” (25). The question at hand: how much time should it take to “mark a theme” (Coon 27) for a teacher of first-year composition? There follows an involved session of arithmetical dialogue, minutes and hours per student, theme, and section, with the Old Hand concluding, “If you want students to write better, you must read their writing thoughtfully and give them appreciation and encouragement. True, true. But you can’t do it on five minutes a theme” (Coon 28). In the essay’s final section, Coon himself interrupts the Socratic dialogue to suggest that “Most English instructors are well trained and competent to teach English. Why is it, then, that they cannot do so?” His answer: “An economic X marks the spot. The answer is that freshman English is a very expensive course to teach” (29). Ultimately, the economic focus of Coon’s essay is on the academic work of teaching, and such a focus is perhaps one of the most prominent ways in which composition talks explicitly about economic issues.

The inheritors of Coon’s perspective — compositionists like Joseph Harris, Jennifer Seibel Trainor, and Amanda Godley — concern themselves with the position and labor of teachers in the academy, and since their scholarly work necessarily focuses on the exploitation of those teachers, their analyses often owe a considerable debt to a Marxian economic perspectives. These perspectives are seldom seen outside of discussions of academic labor. Beyond the work of Richard Ohmann [need to develop examples here from Ohmann’s 2 big CE essays on class and from English in America], we may count brief nods towards Marxian economics from Lester Faigley [too brief to even be worth mentioning?] and Robert Scholes on the privileging of textual consumption over textual production in English departments, and find ourselves left with the work of John Trimbur analyzing the possibilities offered to the composition classroom by Marx’s Grundrisse, and the work of Bruce Horner analyzing the possibilities offered to the composition classroom by Marx’s theories of use and exchange value.

The elephant in the living room here is composition’s interpretation of critical pedagogy, which owes its intellectual heritage both to Paulo Freire’s Christian Marxism and to the post-Marxist work of the Frankfurt School. One might assume that with such a heritage for critical pedagogy, economic concerns — viewed through a Marxian lens — would be inescapable in composition. This is not the case, even when one discusses the economic inequalities inevitably associated with the economic gradations of class.

Let me take as a case in point David Seitz’s 1998 essay on critical pedagogy, “Keeping Honest: Working-Class Students, Difference, and Rethinking the Critical Agenda in Composition.” Seitz’s essay details the results of his classroom study at the University of Illinois at Chicago of “how students from working-class backgrounds” in a “research paper course” (66) react to some of the agendas of so-called “critical pedagogies” as enacted in the field of composition. “Critical pedagogy” as Seitz uses the term seems to extend beyond Paulo Freire’s Christian Marxist philosophy of education as an always political tool for rational human subjects to understand their own oppression and through individual and collective critical praxis overcome that state of oppression and move to an ongoing process of liberatory action, and incorporate elements of poststructuralist theories about the positioning power of language, Derridean theories of difference, and first-generation Frankfurt School critiques of “mass culture”, bourgeois ideology, and alienated labor: in other words, Seitz’s “critical pedagogy” is an odd mishmash of influences that seems to know that it is critical of something but it isn’t quite sure what, and it’s never quite clear from what position the critique is being made. That said, Seitz does a good job of starting to unravel some of the strands of economic inequality twined and knotted together on both sides — teacher/academic (conflation Seitz’s) and student — of his study, though the analysis is strongest when it focuses on students, and shows some blind spots when he looks at the vague class positions he assigns to teacher/academics.

Seitz observed Rashmi Varma’s course “In Our Own Words: Women In the Third World” and later interviewed several of the course participants. While he constructs the course as a course in learning to write, almost all of the evidence he uses in his essay comes from students’ spoken discourse (either in-class or in post-course interviews) discussing the subjects on which the course’s writing focused. Seitz describes the course participants as “mostly urban commuters, primarily African-American, Asian (of different nationalities and generations of immigration) and ethnic white of working-class background” (67). Already it’s interesting to note that only the white students are explicitly assigned an economic identity: we are presumed to know what class “African-American” and “Asian” “urban commuters” would belong to. After setting the scene, Seitz discusses the situations of two students, Diana and Mike, who seem in Seitz’s view to be members of the working class: Seitz discusses them as a part of a group of “white working-class students” (68), Diana talks about her neighborhood as “blue collar”, and Mike’s father and grandfather are cops (67). Economic concerns here seem to be related primarily to occupation, and by occupation to wealth and income, although Seitz complicates matters when he describes the “dominant values of their neighborhoods” (68) as “conservative” (69) and as being perceived as “racist” by the students themselves (68). Seitz himself seems to perceive the students as racist, noting their “class solidarity along traditional lines” when “They railed on about affirmative action, the ties between race and crime in their neighborhoods, capital punishment, and the general disempowerment of working people” (68), and thereby attributing “racist” and “conservative” values to members of one economic category or class.

Seitz describes an apparent shift in Diana’s expressed “conservative” values between a class discussion in April and a small-group interview in June, and perhaps the language used to describe the shift is most interesting, invoking a startling (given the context) economic metaphor of money and exchange: Diana’s expressed point of view becomes, according to Seitz, “linguistic currency for the academic marketplace when in the critical classroom” (69). Why the cash metaphor here? There’s an implicit critique in Seitz’s words, suggesting that Diana’s rhetorical move stands somehow opposed to his goals as a critical pedagogue, and suggesting also that Diana is using language to exchange something, and one might wonder: if this is an exchange, what does Diana purchase with her linguistic currency? Does her language cross the teacher’s palm “as the authoritative discourse necessary for traveling in some privileged verbal-ideological world” (69) and grant — as Seitz’s use of the words “authoritative” and “ideological” suggest — a sort of class mobility in terms of political power? Consider the context: Seitz uses the first-person plural “we” in connection to “middle-class institutions”, apparently suggesting that “our critical positions” as “critical teachers” are somehow middle class at least by virtue of our association with the institutions where “we” teach (65), and yet the students who attend UIC are apparently not middle class.

On what axes of class, then, do “middle-class” “critical teachers” differ from the “working-class” students? Most obviously by education and by occupation, I’d suggest (and therefore also by wealth and income), since students seem here to be constructed as pre-occupational and in the process of education. Also, the profession of university instructor may carry a different prestige value than that of university student. But I’d argue that the most significant differences in terms of class vectors between middle-class teachers and working-class students for Seitz are the differences in terms of values and class consciousness, both of which seem deeply connected to Seitz’s privileged term “critical”.

Seitz’s clearly oppositional references to “the dominant myth of the American individual divorced from socio-cultural and economic factors” and “dominant perceptions of individualism” (66) imply that a Freirean collective class consciousness is an essential component of a “critical” perspective, and “critical” perspectives as constructed by Seitz — as one might expect from a synthesis of theories so influenced by Marxist and leftist thought — seem to entail not so much a method of inquiry as a politically anticonservative, liberal, or even radical political position. But the insights offered by such a position’s opposition to “mass culture ideology” (65) and to the “cultural relativism warranted by consumer-based ideologies of individual choice” that “lets students off the hook when it comes to developing and taking positions on complex and contentious issues of culture and power relations” (67) apparently do both obligate and bestow political agency, since Seitz’s phrasings suggest that students really ought to develop and take positions. This obligation becomes a part of the “academic acculturation” (68) that requires the student to change herself to fit her education by adopting the political power, class consciousness, and values of the leftist political values associated with the “middle class” institution. This construction is, to say the least, interesting, since we know that it would be difficult by any stretch to construct the political orientation of the middle class as leaning primarily to the left.

Many well-meaning composition teachers use the term “critical” in association with a point of view or method of inquiry that somehow transcends class and politics. And yet when Seitz opposes a “more critical discourse” to the “conservative” Diana’s position historically associated with the political right concerning “the godly origin of AIDS” (69), the cultural-left ideological underpinnings of Seitz’s critical pedagogy become somewhat more apparent. The critical/right opposition is also manifest in the way in Seitz opposes “University and business administrators” who “often speak of ‘diversity,’ connoting a level field in which all contributions are equally welcome” to “critical academics” for whom “difference as a term. . . evokes issues of hierarchy and power relations” (66), paralleling the ways in which conservatives frequently argue that America is “already equal” and liberals frequently argue that there are large inequalities of power and privilege in contemporary American society. Interestingly, critical academics are presumably members of an occupational class — the professional class — similar if not congruent to the occupational class of administrators, so the class differences beyond those of values seem to lie in prestige (is it more prestigious to be a university administrator, a business administrator, or a faculty member?), in income and education, in relations of production (instructors are clearly academic labor, and administrators appropriate and distribute surplus value), in political power (administrators make policy), and — for the critical teacher — in class consciousness.

Seitz wraps up his discussion of Diana and Mike with a careful and complex analysis of the contradictory nature of classed impulses towards solidarity and individualism, suggesting that “middle-class” students often value “social mobility” via “individual prestige” whereas “working-class” students “reject their more status-conscious classmates” and “seek economic mobility while rejecting, or remaining ambivalent to, social mobility” and in such actions practice a sort of “class solidarity” (70, 71). So we see again the potential for differential movement along the social and economic vectors of class, and — recursively — class differences in terms of values relating to that class movement.

Forms of class mobility are themselves classed, as ought to be clear to us from the differences between universities we associate with the liberal education model and universities we associate with the vocational education model. It’s interesting, however, that Seitz points to “class solidarity” as a distinguishing characteristic of his working class and not of his middle class, and this construction seems to me to be also implicit in the middle class critical teacher’s opposition to “mass culture ideology” (65) and “monologic discourse” (75). When Seitz critiques “the dominant myth of the American individual” (66) as a sort of working-class false consciousness, he’s assigning to himself the privileged perspective of the individual who stands outside culture and critiques it, rather than being spoken by its discourse. To be a middle class critical teacher is to be an authentic individual, rather than being one of the unenlightened who foolishly believe in myths of individualism. According to Seitz, “white working-class students’ discourses of individualism” “may have more to do with complex issues of white working-class solidarity [. . .] than general manipulations of mass culture” (73), and we here finally see the two moves of class distancing that Seitz as middle class critical teacher attempts: first, a distancing from the working class, and second, a distancing from “mass culture”. Both moves rely on the class-consious middle-class critical individual’s hermeneutic dispelling — via education and values — of the “myth” of individualism, or, as Seitz puts it in the following section, “naive” “concerns for unity” (73).

The following section deals with Lilia, “a Latina who rejected the Catholic tradition, though not the Mexican culture, to become a disciple in the Chicago Church of Christ” (73). While Seitz quotes Lilia’s use of the term “exploitative structures” (73), he does not explicitly acknowledge any intersection of exploitation with socioeconomic class. On the other hand, he does refer to “monologic discourse within her church” (75) without ever suggesting that he had visited her church, and speaks of political action on the parts of churches as “rare” (74): religion as a cultural practices vector of class seems to be a liability in Seitz’s eyes. (Perhaps because he sees faith as opposing the “critical uncertainty” (77) he privileges?) The point of the section seems to again be the complex relationship between individualism and class consciousness. Seitz finds it problematic that Lilia’s “final paper reads like a hybrid genre of sermon and opinion page calling for unity within women’s common struggles, rather than an argumentative researched inquiry into an issue” (74). The prior genre says, “Let’s do something!” while the latter asks, “What is this phenomenon?”: Seitz’s relative valuation suggests that the middle-class perspective of the university expects good students to confirm their powerlessness by privileging individual abstracted critique over collective action. Class consciousness is a form of unity, and as such can foster political agency — another vector of class. And yet for Seitz, to reiterate, “critical uncertainty” (77) is privileged. As a concluding question, Seitz asks “which students value college primarily for hopes of economic mobility and which seek social mobility” (77), and it seems clear that he hopes students will take up the ideological stance of “critical inquiry” and thereby achieve social mobility by adopting the values he prizes. The alternative, economic mobility by means of changing one’s material conditions, is implied to be somehow less appealing. Seitz seems to have forgotten his Freire and one of the primary goals of critical pedagogy.

So what’s missing in all these class analyses? Seitz’s class analysis never considers class relationships based on relations of economic production, despite the ostensible focus on class in his essay and the Marxist foundation upon which the two primary theoretical framers — Paulo Freire and the Frankfurt School — of his “critical” approach rely. Composition in America, in fact, has managed to construct a critical pedagogy that is profoundly self-contradictory in its almost complete disconnection from Marxian ideas. Composition in America has sublimated the notion of class struggle, turned class consciousness into “critical inquiry” (77) and “critical positions” (65) opposed to the false consciousness of “mass culture ideology” (65), mistranslated the proletariat into the working class and the middle class into the bourgeoisie, substituted “oppression” for “exploitation”, and steadfastly refused to incorporate any understanding of the relations of production into its construction of critical pedagogy. Composition, in other words, has taken Paulo Freire and turned him on his head, substituting the neoclassical economist’s embedded-in-capitalism perspective for the Marxian economist’s analysis of capitalism.

How did this happen? How did composition, in adopting so-called critical pedagogies as its default models for instruction, come to decide that the economic aspects of such pedagogies were to be ignored? Part of the blame, I think, must be given to one of the most prominent proponents of Freirean critical pedagogy, a scholar who has done much to turn that Freirean critical pedagogy away from economic concerns and towards cultural concerns. Henry Giroux’s August 7, 2004 article in Dissident Voice, entitled “Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy: Resurrecting Hope in Dark Times”, decries the way in which economic neoliberals hypocritically “have no qualms about using the government to bailout the airline industry” and offer no “expressions of outrage when the state engages in promoting various forms of corporate welfare by providing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to multinational corporations”. The first two-thirds of Giroux’s essay tread similarly familiar ground; a rehearsal of complaints lodged against the neoliberal economic ideology expressed more insightfully and eloquently by many others before Giroux.

What’s most fascinating about this essay, though, is Giroux’s final paragraph, where — quoting Pierre Bourdieu — he urges that “social movements must address the crucial issue of education as it develops throughout the cultural sphere because the ‘power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual — lying in the realm of beliefs,’ and it is precisely within the domain of ideas that a sense of utopian possibility can be restored to the public realm” (emphasis mine). Giroux does exactly what Bourdieu was trying to avoid, in separating out the cultural and the intellectual from the economic. Of course, this is precisely what I would expect from the writer whose influence was most responsible for so-called critical pedagogy’s abnegation of its economically-oriented Marxist origins for a focus on culture: by placing education within the “cultural sphere”, Giroux suggests that education is not an economic process, and ignores Bourdieu’s “not just” rejection of a spurious binary. The worry from Giroux would seem to be that acknowledging an economic component to education is tantamount to saying that education is founded on the neoliberal free market, a fallacious equating of “the economy” with “capitalism” that will be discussed at further length in Chapter 4. Furthermore, in the latter part of the quotation, Giroux seems to assume that “ideas” are somehow fundamentally anti- or non-economic: does Giroux’s academy exists above or outside of the economic events of the past fifteen years?

Giroux, despite the fact that he so roundly critiques neoliberal economic ideology (itself the most extreme extension of mainstream neoclassical economic thought), bases his critique squarely upon its theoretical foundations. He cannot imagine any economic alternative to market capitalism, so his solution is to deny economic concerns entirely, and attempt to understand the problems and possibilities of American education in entirely cultural terms — which shifts the burden of responsibility for remedying economic inequality and enacting societal change squarely onto the shoulders of the individual.

6 thoughts on “Composition’s Economic Silence

  1. John

    Great piece, Mike! I think you have nailed the ways in which many compositionists have misused Freire to produce a “critical pedagogy” that often seems faith-based to me. You have a much stronger base of reading in this area than I do, but your analysis here is the clearest I’ve seen as you’ve developed your thesis over the past year or so.

    One small note: I had a strong grounding in the liberal arts and a liberal education at the Jesuit-run John Carroll University in the late 1950s. When I started teaching at Foothill College in 1965, the entire faculty was engaged in a discussion of “general education” in preparation for accreditation. I came to realize that the liberal arts concept of broad training had been subsumed under the vague title “General”. Liberal education had a clear focus as your analysis of the Latin root shows. “General” has no focus at all, unless you think of it in terms of General Motors or General Foods. Or maybe in educating generals.

    [Silly note: Just as I’m typing this, I’m listening to The Silhouettes singing “Get a Job.” A good theme song for general education.]

    Reply
  2. Steve Parks

    Mike
    Truly enjoyed and learned from your analysis. It’s seems absolutely true to me that much critical pedagogy (and the field, in general) has abandoned economic questions in favor of a more cultural analysis of society. It’s almost as if the devil’s bargain of professionalism requires that composition narrow its focus to acceptable areas.

    One way to understand Comp’s aversion to economic questions, for Donna Strickland, is to see it as a “mangerial unconscious” — the ability of composition to ignore the fundamental economic inequity of part-time instructors paying for the ability of full-tenured folk to partake in critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, based in Marxism, it seems to me would require the teacher to engage in a process which not only led to “seeing” labor inequity, but also to attempting to change it. (Critical pedagogues have only described the world, the point is to change it, ala Marx).

    I wonder what it might mean, finally, for academics and institutions to partner with those populations that are not benefitting from the class stratification occurring today. Service-learning, I think, is a weak form of such parternship; critical pedagogy is the theory of such work; I’m wondering what such an economic-based partnership might entail.

    Thanks for getting me to think about it all.

    Reply
  3. Mike

    John and Steve, thanks both for the kind and generous comments.

    John — I was relieved, upon coming to UMass, that the first-year comp course was at least called “College Writing,” rather than Pitt’s “General Writing.” But I think that raises the question of how schools see comp as a discipline. Writing Across the Curriculum is much more solid here at UMass than it was at Pitt, but I think that many of the conflicts in our discipline really come out of questions of how much we see ourselves as generalists. So here’s a question: does teaching what now seems to be the only required-across-the-board college course deny specialization to us? Must compositionists be all things to all disciplines? I ask partly because I’m one of the co-editors for a comp reader, and I’ve been advocating a shift away from the humanistic focus (i.e., pretty writing and cultural analysis essays, for the most part) and towards a more all-inclusive focus (i.e., essays from journals in disciplines outside the humanities), but other co-editors (mostly, interestingly enough, being from the MFA side) are arguing that a comp reader really needs a humanities focus. How do you see the idea of the ‘general’ education playing out in relation to what students get — or ought to get — from a humanities-based education? Where does comp stand in relation to that?

    Steve — I’ve been quietly following your (apparently new?) Progressive Teachers weblog for a few weeks, waiting for an opportunity to comment, but you beat me to it. :-) But I’ll ask re your comment: you mention ‘professionalism’ and ‘labor inequity’ and implicitly connect them both to Marxist concerns, which seems to me to actually shift such Marxist concerns away from composition curricula and towards debates about professionalization. Part of the target of my critique is that tendency: why is it that we are OK with applying Marxist economic analyses to teachers, but automatically shift to a neoclassical economic orientation when we talk about students?

    Reply
  4. John

    “How do you see the idea of the ‘general’ education playing out in relation to what students get – or ought to get – from a humanities-based education? Where does comp stand in relation to that?”

    Notice the titles of various comp readers: Ways of Thinking, Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing (or variants thereof). Those titles emphasize “ways” of inquiry. I’m not certain the texts actually deliver in every case, but that seems the appropriate focus for Comp. Seeing reading and writing as ways to inquire into what makes us human (namely language and related forms of expression) seems a good task for composition.

    The genius of Freire was a method using language as a source of critical inquiry. As you’ve pointed out, that all gets buried in political discussions, with lots of theorizing about oppression. Go back to the words. Go back to language. Make inquiry into the nature of writing the centerpiece of COMP, both as a profession and a first-year required course.

    The biggest problem I see in most composition programs is they proceed as if the answers about how to write are known and they simply need to be provided to students who haven’t paid attention in high school or who simply haven’t written much. That construction of the student relative to the teacher leads to all sorts of bad practice, IMHO.

    So for me, a comp reader should be filled with reading that engages and challenges students, arranged in ways that encourage inquiry. I think that means including writing outside of traditional humanities essays.

    Reply
  5. joanna

    Well, this blog entry is one for the folder marked “Mike’s Stuff That I’ll Read Over Winter Break After my Brain Recovers From the Semester’s End.” We have one more week of classes and my mind is too preoccupied with the more mundane realities of this thing that we call teaching composition to be able to focus on anything other than my own classes.

    What point are you at in your dissertation progress (process?)? Do you have a sense of when you’ll graduate? Be on the job market?

    Joanna, Yenta of Academe

    Reply

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