Saturday, April 12, 2008

This Educational Experience brought to you by Corporate America

This one probably won't be too long, but with the personal concern it draws, there was no not writing on this subject.

Everything in this world is a commodity, there is nothing that lacks monetary value. Health care, food, seal pelts, first love, you, I, education. We're all commodities - walking, talking crates full of crap to slap a price tag on, to buy and sell until you're frothing at the mouth on some internet forum about how Ron Paul should be president - all of us. At least, this is what the hardcore libertarians would have us believe. Pretty crazy, right? Stripping all real meaning out of life and society and dumbing us down until we're nothing but commodities, products unto ourselves, and life is nothing more than a series of sales and purchases. Property rights are #1! These philosophies are essentially advocating a life of shallow materialism and nothing more. The market dictates what is right and wrong - the market dictates everything that matters, all that you see and seem. Bow down and worship at the altar of free market capitalism. Read Ayn Rand and accept Objectivism as your personal M.O. in this world, and look down your nose at anybody who disagrees with this approach to life - they just don't understand. (Somewhere along the way, you're also going to have to pretend that the market actually cares about individuals, and that it isn't going to essentially cannibalize the lower classes while favoring the wealthy and giving corporations near-absolute control in society. If your opinions and views don't conform with what the free market dictates - you're wrong.)

Fortunately, most people aren't quite that bad. (Rand's philosophy of glorifying selfishness, greed, and general self-absorption as admirable traits - beloved as it is by libertarians, with how much it has in common with their politics - has a hard time catching on, as much as its message could potentially thrive in modern America, in large part thanks to the fact that she was an incredibly bad writer. I may not even be published yet - and looking at all the garbage that gets published every year, publishing isn't a definite barometer of quality of writing - or particularly overconfident or egotistical in regards to my writing (As much as this satirically intended comment is going to make it seem otherwise - if I had more faith in people's ability to pick up on satire when they read it, I wouldn't feel the need for this disclaimer in the midst of this over-long parenthetical aside.), I can say with confidence that even I can write more interesting and compelling stories than Rand. My interests don't lie in writing brain-numbing two-dimensional literary rants with flat characters and plotlines conceived solely to push an entirely hollow philosophy - that effectively serves to glorify some of the worst traits people often possess - through strawman arguments and a simple "I'm right, everyone else is wrong" approach. It's intellectually and humanistically disingenuous, after all - not to mention downright insulting to anybody you're trying to sell on your philosophy as an adult capable of thinking for themselves.)

And as such, people like Ron Paul, though worshiped by half the internet, are mocked by the rest. You won't win friends by trying to argue that we're all commodities - especially when historically, this is something we as a species tend to strongly disagree with these days, slavery not exactly being looked well upon historically (Except by white supremacists, anyway, and theirs is not a perspective that holds any positive value in the modern world.) - nor trying to argue that rights we tend to appreciate should be commodified as well. (It's hard to take a political group seriously when you've seen its members trying to seriously argue against the FDA on the grounds that "We should have the right to eat whatever we want, no matter how unhealthy! Let the market decide which foods are manufactured in unsanitary conditions and which medications will kill us!" When the right to clog your arteries with trans-fats is a concern, your politics are not exactly relevant to the real world the rest of us live in. Especially considering that if asked, most people would no doubt say they'd prefer to eat healthier to begin with, so long as the food tasted good. I'm not entirely sure what it is that gives extreme conservatives the fetish you see here and there for attacking public health.) Health care should not be about money (If you ask the average American whether they'd like inexpensive to free, quality health care without bringing up that dirty, dirty word "socialism" that the right likes to associate with the "evils" of the world," you'd get pretty much the same response from everybody. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy for a reason, after all.), public education should not be privatized and commodified either (Education is a right, and absolutely necessary in order to maintain a true, modern society - a society which does not value education and intelligence is doomed to fall. To make education a privilege is to cultivate a society where intelligence is vilified - and intellectualism is looked down on far too often here in America as is, thanks to the right (See: the entire Bush/Gore election) - and ultimately create a society that cannot sustain itself in a meaningful fashion. A populace to be manipulated.), and the environment is not a commodity either - you can harvest all those natural resources you want, but they're all limited, and the more you do, the more you strip away at the core of our planet in the sole interest of corporate profits. These politics and this philosophy tie well into the typical conservative stance of "If you care about the environment, you're a dirty socialist hippie and destroying our nation." Something we see broadly between both the libertarians and Republicans - despite the libertarians' efforts to often paint themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative, Ron Paul himself is basically an extreme Republican who's only popular because he wants to pull out of Iraq. (After all, why vote for a candidate who'd at least try to start undoing some of the Bush administration's damage in addition to withdrawing from the Middle East - where our "surge" has failed, and it is impossible to achieve the "victory" the administration continues to insist that we can, with the military outright kowtowing to far right interests, politicized as it has become, taboo as I know it is to say of the military - when you can just vote for an anti-war Republican? He's a doctor!)

Socially commodifying politics are not liberal as they paint them, either - they're simply a matter of, once again, the free market!!! Like having that whole right of choice, ladies? You won't get a say anymore if enough loud conservative groups get the public to agree to ban it in your area. (Fun Fact: According to libertarians, local governments should handle everything and the nation should be effectively split into a series of commodified city-states rather than a unified nation where any one thing is universal beyond money. Why agree on universal rights, even if they're controversial, when we can just let locals decide on them? Don't like gays or black people? Get a lobby together and pressure your local government to throw them out! Mmm, that's good free market oppression!) In a commodified society, corporate interests are king. In an obsessively capitalist society (When we aren't even as free market capitalist as we like to pretend - we just like to give tax breaks and extra helping hands to major corporations thanks to groups like the tobacco lobby. Why support improved, more-leftist economic policies mixing aspects of the free market and a controlled economy to help farmers and small businesses while entering trade agreements that benefit the world's poor when we can give badmouth leftist economic ideas while using many of these same ideas in the worst way imaginable - through corrupt trade agreements and giving handouts to the already-massively-successful corporations who don't need them?), with such interests ruling, the interests of the people are marginalized - you get a playing field groomed for a conservative wet dream to flourish. (Except said dreams are not compatible with reality and would lead to widespread poverty and far deeper problems tearing the nation apart from the inside, the likes of which would put even the Great Depression to shame.) Civil rights? Personal freedoms? Unionization/Workers' rights? These are not conservative values. The potential for groups to lobby for local legal gay marriage does not a liberal stance on social values make. And contrary to Randian philosophy and libertarian politics, no, not everything of value in life can be obtained by working hard and making money. (Even if you're working long, abusive hours and the pay is terrible. You should feel lucky to be employed, striking is a communist move! If you don't like your job, find a means to improve your market value so someone else will employ you! ... I feel dead inside after writing that sentence, and I've read enough serious arguments to that end online before as is.)

At any rate, getting to the point, my alma mater the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is known for making bad, conservative decisions that certainly don't favor the students. (Even in the last month of my final semester in Spring '07, they attempted to get every student they could on campus to install software to scan their computers for mp3s to report directly to the RIAA - essentially telling students, yes, "Do us a favor and turn yourselves in to the RIAA, we're not particularly interested in sticking up for you, and we don't care if you graduate, so hey, bring some lawsuits on yourself!" The majority of the RIAA's targets have been college students who aren't in much of a position to put up a legal defense to their painfully gray-area legal bullying, and UNCC does not particularly care for their students over a corrupt recording industry organization's efforts to attack students, outright assisting them. In addition to this, they allowed the RIAA to begin monitoring the entire student network from then on, annihilating what privacy there was in students' internet connections then, in order to keep an eye for mp3 downloads on the off-chance that they could find someone pirating music, as commonplace as that still is, and as overexaggerated as the RIAA's claims of mp3 piracy-related losses are.) The latest in these decisions amounts to letting the school's curriculum be bought by corporate interests - in this case, specifically, BB&T corp. - with the agreement to push and forcibly incorporate Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged into the curriculum as required reading for students. (Several other universities agreed to the same contemptible deal.) No matter how you look at it, it's entirely academically unethical and a failure in responsibly respecting students' academic freedoms and interests in lieu of being paid to push a specific agenda. Of all the ways a university could look to raise money, this would be amongst the worst. (And UNCC has a history of not exactly using their money all that well, no less. I'd like to be able to look back on my alma mater and have nothing but praise for it like you're expected to, but that would be dishonest of me - the dorms were veritable ratholes, and the quality of food on campus was abysmal. I could go to a cafeteria in my freshman year, back when Sodexho still ran the dining services in 2002-2003, and actually not feel sick after eating there. Later in 2003, from then on, they switched over to Chartwells (No doubt in a costcutting move, they don't exactly have a glowing reputation across the country.), at which point, there were no more meals in the cafeteria that would make one think "I'm glad I ate that." The only welcomed additions to dining in the remainder of my time there were sushi on campus and this small Chinese place in the Student Activity Center, where I ended up getting lunches from regularly. UNCC does not have a track record, though, of making decisions in the interests of the student body - not in their health, in the switch to Chartwells and the stink students raised over that, not in their living conditions, considering how bad the dorms were, and sure as hell not their rights either, looking at their interactions with the RIAA. This Ayn Rand decision is yet another in a long line of fuck-yous they've handed down to their students. That said, as much as the UNCC administration and handling of things disgusts me, I can't tear down every aspect of the school - there's a lot of good programs, interesting courses, and respectable professors there, so while the administration has earned naught but my ire, I do look back on my five years there thinking positively in regards to having taken many worthwhile and interesting courses and learned from many professors I think well of.)

The Ayn Rand Institute (Institute of Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!) is playing this deal up as something to be praised - claiming value in Rand's absolutist ethics. The very concept of absolutism in something like ethics is laughable and utterly intellectually dishonest. Absolutism in all its forms amounts to one thing - dumbing down and oversimplifying everything as so to avoid having to think. The "hey, how 'bout that black and white?" take on things. And the field of ethics is absolutely one of the last fields where absolutism has a place. In my final semester, I actually took an ethics course myself - which made me regret not studying philosophy further, I may look into some philosophy courses when I make it into grad school - in which we looked at many, many different types of ethics and philosophies. (And what's more fun than wrapping your brain around Kant's Deontology and defining the categorical imperative on exams?) There were plenty of somewhat-absolutistic philosophies, sure, but they were far more well thought out than Rand's. And many more philosophies properly took all the gray areas in life into account, which made it hard to make any kind of absolute ethical judgment calls - these philosophies, of course, are far more compatible with reality, as life isn't and never will be black and white. Rand's philosophy, however, is so poorly developed and two-dimensional strawman argument-centric that it's practically a mockery of legitimate philosophy. Objectivism is in and of itself a philosophy that thrives on glorifying the worst in humanity. It figures that only now when the libertarians are louder than ever on the internet - when again, it isn't the average person whom free-market capitalism works in favor of - and with Rand's books' sales slumping even more than ever (Rightly so.) that corporations would seek to wedge Rand's self-righteous anti-free thought (When Rand speaks of "rational" thought, she tends to mean "this is how I frame my way of thinking - think like me or you're wrong.") literary masturbation into public education. Some schools get it, given Yale professor Harold Bloom's (Not even so astute, given how obvious it is) observation that Rand "could not write her way out of a paper bag." Not to mention that - as I've harped on many times here - her ideas were far too shallow to build a course around. (Let alone a real, meaningful philosophy. Objectivism is just a means by which selfish, self-interested individuals can rationalize their behavior without feeling guilty. Real altruism is almost unheard of in this world, but as little faith in humanity as I have - most of us at least have some capacity for caring for others over ourselves. This is a trait that should never stop being valued.)

BB&T should be publicly criticized, and universities reprimanded for this. To set this precedent in commodifying education, these schools' academic integrity itself is undermined, and it's a blatant betrayal of the student body. (Again, in no way the first time at UNCC.) It's bad literature, it's bad philosophy, and it holds no real academic value. There's no meaningful discussion stirred up by Rand's ideas - just the same old argument of selfishness versus generosity, "I want to feel good about looking out for number one" versus "I'd rather put others over myself and care about people." A fundamental argument of human nature, but by no means one we need to be debating in our schools - the day we start seeing self-absorption praised or accepted as a potentially good quality, we're in trouble. And with this precedent set in higher education, it's always certainly possible that we'll start seeing Rand's "literature" pushed into public education as well - to be read by far more impressionable teenagers who in many cases may not technically be capable of reasoning enough to know better than to believe in Rand's, to be vulgar, bullshit. (The human brain doesn't really reach its full development capacity until the early twenties, after all. It would essentially be proselytizing the youth in many cases.)

Of course, this is by no means the first and in no way the only incident we're seeing of corporate interests pushing themselves on schools. However, this stands out in that it's an attempt at pushing in moral and ethical propaganda on the students, as opposed to merely making them use one piece of software or another, or study one thing or another they focus on.

In short, not cool, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, not cool. Year after year, you continue to sell out your academic and intellectual integrity. You want to be #3 in North Carolina, behind Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, so desperately? Fucking over your students and pulling stunts like this will not accomplish this. All you will do is damage your own reputation and integrity while making alumni like myself ashamed to be associated. Corporate interests are not student interests. As long as corporate interests remain a major priority to you guys up there on top, you will not be a respectable university. Either students come first, or they aren't a real priority at all. There's a reason people go to college, after all. (Hint: It's not just about getting stupid-drunk every night, banging a few loose people and starting a VD collection, then dropping out like the media plays it up as. Many of us do actually value our educations and want to learn. Letting a corporation set a curriculum is anti-education.) Having had plenty of good professors at UNCC, I have just enough faith in them that at least a few of them, I'd hope, would inform their students about why they're being forced to read Ayn Rand, and ultimately help to tear Objectivism apart in the classroom.

Unfortunately, when we're seeing schools stoop to things like this for money - public universities, no less - it says something again about where education is in our country, as public services go.

Hey, it ended up being longer than I thought. Fancy that. Once you get me going on a political tangent, it's hard to shut me up. (Here's hoping the rant didn't make any of your brains bleed.)

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