Blurry Vision for Austerity Livin'

By Imagining America | September 12, 2012

By Daniel Tucker, M.F.A. student in Studio Arts/Moving Image, University of Illinois at Chicago, and 2012–2013 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. The posts in this PAGE Blog Salon respond to IA’s Foreseeable Futures paper by David Scobey, “Civic Engagement and the Copernican Moment,” and an essay collectively written by last year’s PAGE Fellows that probes Scobey’s piece.

Please note this post was written on June 1, 2012.

Consider what we have been seeing lately: Last week 250,000 people filled the streets of Montreal to mark 100 days of student-led protests on students’ right to education without tuition increases. The same week, 40,000 students under the banner of “Yo Soy 132” appeared in Mexico City and, while not focused on education policies, certainly highlighted the current sense of student power rippling across the continent. Students in the United States are perking up and starting to link their tuition and debt activism with the explosion of local “occupations” that emerged in the fall of 2011. This extends beyond the active campuses of California, Wisconsin, and New York, where occupations preceded Occupy Wall Street. OWS was undoubtedly fueled in large part by disenchanted students and ex-students, and parallel and exciting campus-based occupations took place alongside urban and more broadly oriented actions last fall.

While people are undoubtedly mobilizing, much of the discussions about income inequality, tuition, and the debt bubbles are limited to the lens of economic policy. Groups like Imagining America are poised to take the conversation further beyond this blurry lens of resource allocation and towards a qualitative and critical debate about what we want funded and, more fundamentally, what we want.

David Scobey’s IA text and talk, “Civic Engagement and the Copernican Moment,” outlines some of the vanguards of this movement in higher education over the last 20 years—an invaluable historical sketch for anyone doing this work. Scobey’s most significant contribution, for our purposes, is beginning to pose difficult, critical challenges and questions for engaged scholarship and education.

In completing my first year as a graduate student in Moving Image/Studio Arts at the University of Illinois, I have participated in a number of activities to engage my new campus community including:  serving on committees focusing on diversity and sustainability, participating in meetings with job candidates in my college, attending graduate student union forums, developing materials focused on preparing young students for “life after the B.F.A.,” and engaging in public programming collaborations with other departments and on-campus exhibition venues (Gallery 400 and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum).

After years of working outside of academia I have been struck by how consistently I’ve encountered the defense of disciplinarity that is included in Scobey’s list of concerns. This defensiveness becomes clear when people are invited in meetings and public forums to describe visions for the future of the university and the visions are limited to possible futures where their discipline is continually reproduced and professional standing is fully intact.

The author and activist Raj Patel uses a medical metaphor to describe this tendency. Anton’s Blindness is a disorder in which a person cannot see but believes they can, so fills their time making excuses for why they run into things. In his book, Value of Nothing, he suggests that we have Anton’s Blindness when we refuse to see the complexity of a problem and make simple excuses to explain it away.

In debates about education, we are shortsighted if we focus our explanations on austerity—as if all solutions and problems are contained within paying less tuition or reallocating more taxes to education. Economic Justice is not the only need. This ignores content. In order for socially- and politically-engaged academics to see beyond economic tweaks to a fundamentally flawed system, we must heed David Scobey’s call to consider what kind of education is needed and desired for a more socially just society.