sleeping student - how capitalism stops us from learning

The classic dilemma of mainstream liberal educational systems today is “how do you get students to care?” There are libraries of books and journals devoted to creating stimulating learning environments. Countless hours have been logged by instructors at meetings, conferences, retreats and workshops about making teaching engaging. Curriculums have been designed and redesigned for maximum relevance to students. To be clear, this is a lot of extra work. But educators do it for the love of the children. No, that’s not real. But they probably do the extra because studies have shown that caring is a prerequisite for learning and successful teaching depends on getting students motivated.

In the rhetoric of current theories about the correlation between caring and learning, however, caring is a fragile thing. “Interest” is most often depicted as a state of mind that the wily instructor must foster, or risk its wilting. It’s something that must be ignited, created, kept alive or somehow imposed using various tricks and techniques. For all the work going into getting students to care, few people seem to be asking why caring isn’t their default position. The rhetoric sure seems to be suggesting that the majority of students can’t sustain a motivation for knowledge on their own, even when they’re volunteering, and paying, to learn.

In an essay on why there haven’t been more class-based protests over the increasing burden of global austerity measures on the poor, Jerome Roos argues that there are three factors that sap people of motivation in the fight against capitalism: the general “dis-aggregation and atomization of the social fabric,” anxiety, and a heightened sense of the futility of combating an “enemy” so embedded in our political and economic structures that alternatives never seem feasible.

Roos explains that these factors are all generated by late capitalist societies, and work to undermine solidarity, even between like-minded people. They’re also all factors that direct people’s thoughts in towards themselves, making them care less about social change at the same time as they enact capitalism’s emphasis on the value of the individual.

Roos’ ideas can be translated pretty easily to the realm of education, and it might be important that we do that, given that we don’t tend to think about the impact of capitalism on people’s basic abilities to learn. Lots has been written about the effects of consumer culture on school-based education (that consumer-driven media adversely affects attention spans, retention and memory, spelling, etc., etc.), but we haven’t fully thought through what capitalist economies teach us about learning. By the time anybody is old enough to understand what capitalist culture is, living in a capitalist culture will have already taught us a lot of lessons, many of which might be working against our teaching regardless of how engaging, relevant, cutting-edge and stimulating it is.

Contemporary classrooms are like working models of how late capitalism teaches us not to be motivated. Let’s stick to Roos’ factors here for the sake of brevity. Social atomization is a phenomenon so prevalent in the classroom that it seems weirdly extreme to someone who grew up when everyone just watched the CBC. There’s not even a unified culture. The people in my classes all listen to different music, watch different media, follow different trends. They’re defined by group identities, but they understand these identities as shifting, non-essential, choice-driven.

Their choice of group identity, to them, should strategically serve their “selves,” an attitude groomed into them by life in a commercialist culture. Marketing gurus don’t sell products by expounding on the value of the product anymore, but by dangling the promise of incorporation into a desirable community. Increasingly corporate universities and colleges work the same way, offering the position of student as a way to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to enter the workforce at an advanced place and earn more money. Learning has become instrumentalized—its value lies in its ability to get us ahead.

Instrumentalization—the idea that one has to do something with one’s education—also limits people’s ability to appreciate knowledge for its own sake. The anxiety that Roos talks about has to do with social expectations of productivity that make people “perpetually preoccupied with the exigencies of the present moment.” That is a true thing in a classroom. Students ideally will not be worried about being fired from school, but the exigencies of test prep, essay writing and trying to get good grades are time consuming. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for learning for the sake of learning, especially if students have other jobs (which lots of them do) and are cramming and trying to fit in three weeks’ worth of work into one. Learning is prioritized by what’s on the test and what needs to get done to pass the course. Everything else becomes superfluous.

Anxiety over exigencies is part of the student condition, but it’s definitely made worse when coupled with the dawning awareness students seem to be developing that postsecondary education is not leading them to a financially secure career made possible by their own unique contributions to the free-market economy, but to a low-wage foothold on a mountain of economic precarity. Despite the best efforts of recruitment officers, futility is in the air in a contemporary classroom, and that makes any kind of learning seem awfully pointless.

It’s no wonder that students are more motivated when subjects are relevant to them—when capitalist culture has trained us to limit our focus to our own lives and sense of well-being. This is a huge impediment to knowledge, though. By only ever trying to connect subjects to contemporary students’ experiences, we might even lessen their ability to learn because learning requires us to engage in the unfamiliar—that which is not us—and not constantly keep within the realm of what we know, i.e. ourselves.

 image: student sleeping via Shutterstock