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Op-Ed: Whitman’s Threatened Democracy

Kaitie Dong, Whitman College Junior

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Whitman has become subject to a form of economization that threatens our democracy.

In an economized society, prospective students determine which college to attend based on how much tuition they are willing to invest and the profit they speculate they will receive. Sound familiar?

In her book Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown, contemporary political theorist and professor at UC Berkeley, defines economization as the process of remaking noneconomic spheres and practices in accordance with market rationality. Following the logic of capitalism, economization equates individuals’ moral autonomy with their ability to care for themselves regardless of systemic obstacles. For example, an individual in poverty is held fully responsible for their situation rather than structural injustices that prevents them from attaining a job.

As a result of this responsibilization, humans become hyper-individualized market actors who think and behave according to cost-benefit analyses to compete with others in the global economy. Contemporary political theorist and professor at Pennsylvania State University, Henry Giroux argues, the market rewards selfish, rather than moral, behavior.

The economized individual acts according to their own best interests rather than the interests of the polity. On the other hand, democracy, defined as the political structure in which the people rule and govern themselves, requires the very opposite values: equality, inclusion, and collaboration with others to foster a shared future. Democracy is therefore threatened by this competitive market rationality.

What does democracy have to do with education? Thomas Jefferson believed in the importance of an educated and engaged citizenry because the government cannot be entrusted to the rulers alone. Instead, Jefferson proposed that “the people themselves are [our] only safe depositories […] and to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” In short, education is important in developing civic-minded individuals to participate in democracy.

If education is a precondition to democracy, Brown argues that such knowledge is what a liberal arts education has promised. Not an education that teaches students how to succeed in business, but an education that fosters thoughtful and engaged citizens. Education, and therefore our democracy, is on the pyre of economization.

Many students feel pressured to take classes and choose their majors according to what will help them become a more skilled and attractive competitor in the job market. Especially with Whitman’s hefty price tag for tuition, students hope that their classes are worth their investment. This rationality is reflected in the distribution of the majority of students in majors that can lend itself useful to professional schools or specific careers, such as BBMB and Economics, rather than in the art and humanities, which speak to what it means to be human and where potentials for colonial resistance are located. Are you getting Frankenstein and Ghandi tingles?

Individuals are also trained to sell themselves and their experiences to the globalized capitalist economy. I was a Resident Assistant in Jewett last year, and at the end of our term, the Student Engagement Center came to an in-service meeting to instruct us how to best market our skills. My relationships and experiences with my residents and staff were boiled down to my ability to “problem solve” and “team-build” on my resume.

Similarly, towards the end of our first semester as the 2017 directors of the Power & Privilege Symposium, our team was requested to take NACA NEXT, a new online “tool to help students prepare for their next step after graduation – their careers.” NACA NEXT was developed in response to the National Association for Colleges and Employers, who identified skills employers are seeking from college graduates, and additionally allows NACA NEXT participants to compare their scores with their peers from around the country. Rather than sharing how to collaborate and foster relationships with others on a team, students are instructed how to advance their skills to become better workers than others.

In the last two examples, we see how the distinction between students and workers has become blurred.

Colleges and universities compete in the global capitalist economy for the attention of prospective students through branding their prestige and programs, and flaunting their new amenities. Higher education institutions are also measured and ranked by business magazines and corporations to foster this branding and competition. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance compares Whitman at No. 29 of private liberal arts colleges in their magazines annual list of the “Best Values of Private Colleges” in 2015.

Rather than promoting Whitman as a non-profit public good, business magazines promote Whitman as a good economic investment for the individual.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take classes in STEM fields or become an econ major, nor do I want to invalidate the desire to get a job you really care about after graduation. STEM fields are fascinating and valuable in their own right, and to be unconcerned with work and financial stability after college would be a privilege. Instead, I want to caution you against only taking classes and doing extracurricular activities for resume building and jobs.

Learn about the issues going on campus or in the Walla Walla Valley; have conversations with the administration, faculty, staff, and students about how you envision the campus and then do it; participate in a statewide march for immigrant rights; learn about the history of colonization in Myanmar. Learn about the world both in and out of the classroom to meaningfully participate and engage in the community you are in.

Although considering liberal arts higher education as a means of fostering participation in the polity appears to be a manifestation of instrumental rationality, it is okay. Because liberal arts higher education is one of the last few spheres that possess the potential to defend people from economization and develop civic-minded members. It must be protected.

Deeply engage in our democracy because, as Martin Luther King Jr. would argue, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Otherwise, our democracy is on the line.

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Op-Ed: Whitman’s Threatened Democracy