The University and the Global Pandemic: In the Eye of the Storm

This week marks the beginning of a new semester in many colleges and universities across the U.S. But unlike other semesters when the first week of classes evoked a sense of joyful anxiety and anticipation, this week has been filled with dread and a sense of a looming disaster. While some colleges and universities announced that they are moving online and some even offered tuition reduction, others moved straight ahead with their plans to reopen and bring students back to campus for in-person classes. With cases spiking in many parts of the country, with the total count of infections rising to 5.5 million and the official death toll exceedign 170 thousand, with more information emerging about the detrimental effects of this disease, many are returning to campuses amidst all the warning signs that poorly ventilated buildings and the system of shuffling bodies around campus is a sure road to worsening this epidemiological disaster.

Why would universities and colleges plunge straight ahead into the mess called “reopening” and “campus reentry?

No one is surprised by the answer – money. Students have to bring in tuition dollars and those tuition dollars have to keep the university business afloat.

But universities have done more than just move ahead with in-person classes to get the tuition dollars. A few schools around the country have asked students to sign COVID waivers and blocked students’ ability to register for classes or access healthcare if they refused to sign the waiver. Pause for a second. Institutions are asking students to sign waivers that they acknowledge that COVID is a deadly disease but they would not hold the university liable if they contract it.

Many institutions have also pushed faculty in high-risk categories or those caring for family members in high-risk categories to accept in-person instruction or run the risk being fired. In some cases, pleas for understanding that contracting this virus would result in an inevitable death of a child with a heart condition rose to the level of national attention and resulted in accommodations. In many cases, however, this violent refusal to provide accommodations in the context of a global disaster went on, leaving families struggling to figure out how to choose between financial and physical survival.

Universities have invested in “safe return” packets created by private firms, with fancy logos and clever decals directing traffic around hallways that in some cases are barely four feet wide. Faculty and staff received safety packets with face shields and a small bottle of sanitizer. They might as well a body bag to dispose of the corpse when the body in the classroom has run its course and succumbed to the disease. Faculty have been asked to identify suitable replacements who would take over their courses when they become sick or die. Some universities have created promotional videos that include images of large lecture theaters for over a hundred people but barely hold twenty students enthralled by their professor’s lecture. Websites are now full of pictures of people interacting with each other that would not have been considered safe for more than 15 minutes even in masks. But why? Why is it that we have not learned that at the time of crisis selling a fake dream is the worst kind of lie? That promising “a college experience” with a death waiver is basically criminal? That forcing faculty to make choices between an unsafe return to work or being force to take a leave of absence or be altogether fired is beyond the pale?

In some cases, university administrators are explicit that they want faculty to offer in-person instruction because “students want a real college experience.” This position reflects what has become common sense over the last two decades – students are customers and as the U.S. consumerist culture goes, the customer is always right.

Here is the clash. The conflict. The deadly collision if you will. What if the customer might not be right?

We live in the midst of a massive political crisis where disinformation about this pandemic has reached epic proportions. From the state level all the way to the national level, we have been observing efforts to suppress the data and misinform the public about the extent of the crisis, its drastic proportions, and its wildfire spread. Conspiracy theories and politicization of the pandemic have turned even basic safety precautions, such as masks, into matters of life or death.

In this situation, even a customer who may wish to be fully informed has no way of having all the information necessary to make an informed decision. The jury is still out whether customers make right choices even if they possess necessary facts. The crowds congregating on campuses in complete disregard of basic safety rules like wearing masks and staying six feet apart suggest that this might not be the case.

That is not all of the issue though.

What has been the most tragic for me to watch is how the university has completely betrayed its mission by following the decision to open its campuses.

Historically, the university has been the site of enlightenment, the site where expert knowledge was created, valued, and curated. The mission of the university has been to bring knowledge to the community and to serve the state in improving the wellbeing of its citizens. I admit that it has not always been benevolent – colonizing at times, devastating at others. But the major function of producing knowledge and valuing expertise has been at the core of what universities did. Opening campuses, bringing large groups of students together, giving freedom to socialize at fraternity or sorority parties, bars, or night clubs goes counter to all scientific evidence and guidance we have obtained so far.

There is also something else. Universities sought to model the character traits to be pursued – curiosity, integrity, and hard work. Higher education is not built on the ideals of those who wanted to make a quick buck. It was built on the ideals of becoming a better person through encounter with expert knowledge and through willingness to grapple with complex issues without looking for dishonest short-cuts. Promising a “real college experience” in the midst of a global pandemic, especially in states where cases have been rising since the beginning of summer at exponential rates, is at best dishonest, at worst morally reprehensible.

So, here we are – in the middle of a global pandemic, in midst of a grave political crisis, in the mire mess of disinformation on every imaginable level. And what choice do universities leaders or boards that govern them make? To sacrifice lives – of students, staff, and faculty – to protect the bottom line. To go counter to expert knowledge, to go counter to best available scientific evidence, and to go counter to basic ethical and moral imperatives of modeling integrity, serving communities, and saving lives. All for the sake of profit.

Humanities scholars have long raised concerns about the way universities have become businesses. Profit over people. Contingent faculty as disposable labor. Students as customers rather than learners. Dictatorial control over professors’ speech if they express unpopular opinions. There have been warning signs that this turn from the function of enlightenment towards the function of profit-making would lead to a disaster. This is neither a new crisis nor a new revelation. But like in every other area of American life, COVID19 opened these sores anew and revealed the rot inside. We knew or suspected it was there. We just have not really done much about it. 

What could have been done differently?

Universities have done a great job supporting researchers looking for biomedical solutions or engineering innovations that could address equipment shortages. But there could have been a more concerted effort to educate students and their families about the dangers of the disease and to take action towards elevating considerations of public good over individual desires. Instead of pandering to individual students’ fantasies of sorority rush parties, fraternity beer bashes, fall football tailgating, afternoon sun at the quad, and rock climbing at the university gym – because admit it, that’s what “true colleges experience” has become – universities could have cultivated spaces for the conversation about the common good, about what is best for the society at large, and about the course of action that would help us get through this crisis as a civilization. Our communities needed these conversations, not just our students.

Instead of finding elaborate ways to push faculty towards in-person instruction, universities could have engaged in a radical experiment of reimagining education. Why were we not using this time to create new possibilities of what university learning could entail? Why were we not asking ourselves questions about alternative ways of engaging with each other? Why were we not pursuing alternative spaces for learning collectively? We all knew face-to-face contact would facilitate the spread of the disease. We could have looked for new approaches and innovative teaching that would move towards destandardization, towards disrupting the consumerist culture, and towards redesigning our relationships with each other, with ideas, with expert knowledge. All of a sudden, the world constrained by the fear of infections became more interconnected than ever with art galleries, concert halls, and museums offering virtual tours, webinars, and lectures. So many opportunities that could have been harnessed in creative ways to produce something new were wasted. Instead universities wasted already limited resources on return packets that create only an illusion of safety.

Finally, this could have been the time for the professoriate to set aside individual differences and consider how we could stand in solidarity with suffering communities, with underappreciated educators in schools, and with workers who were losing their jobs as unemployment rates grew.  Academia’s culture of “divide and conquer” kept most folks focused on individual recognition, individual attainment, individual rewards, and individual promotion. In the end, very few have attempted to take on this crisis collectively. Historical crises have shown that when “I” reigns supreme, we all become sheep prepared for slaughter. Instead of a national strike – in solidarity and support for all those who are losing their jobs, who are facing the threat of becoming infected and dying, and who are terrified about their future – the professoriate went ahead focusing on individual little problems, courses, and papers. This is a dangerous path towards extinction.

We need change and action. In the long run, we need to strive for a more ethical and moral engagement with the world, with our students, and with each other. But in the short run, we need collective resistance. What’s ahead is not just the impending doom of inevitable outbreaks, but also the public outcry about university’s betrayal of its trust. We cannot be and should not be complicit in this self-destruction.

Masks and Guises

In my book Teacher education reform as political theater: Global policy dramas, I analyze how in 2014 a small group of Russian reformers enacted teacher education modernization reform despite great opposition from educators and the public. Using rich ethnographic material, the book captures how the official story of improving education obscures a radical change in purposes of schooling, in constructions of teachers’ work, and in teacher education designs. Ultimately, despite the official rhetoric, modernization reforms normalize social inequality, introduce a conservative social change, and position Russian education at the service of global corporations.

“Masks and Guises” is the second chapter from this book and uses the concept of masks to analyze the Concept of Support for the Development of Pedagogical Education. Even though most educators believed it was designed by the Russian Ministry of Education (MOE), it was written by a small group of reformers (Anton Mikhailovich [1], Joseph Abramovich, Maksim Davydovich, Vadim Alekseyevich, Oleg Victorovich, and their colleagues), most of whom were affiliated with Lyutvino Economics University (LEU). This group prepared the initial text of the policy (the LEU version); subsequently, the MOE distributed a slightly modified version for public discussion.

[1] All personal and geographic names are pseudonyms to protect participants’ anonymity and confidentiality.

What is Political Theater?

One way to view educational reform as political theater is from the perspective of theatrics of politics – or observing reformers’ proposals for educational change as a type of dramatic performances, in which reformers as actors (or even directors) attempt to create an illusionary world wrought with problems for which they allegedly identified solutions. Viewing educational reforms and policies from this perspective opens up opportunities for two ways of critically engaging with them. First, in theater, dramatic performances are based on the implicit assumption that they should communicate the truth, yet as theater-goers or spectators in general, we all know that this is not the case. In the theater of politics, however, this implicit assumption is often hard to navigate – we all suspect that politicians lie but are often uncertain about where to draw the line between truth and fiction. In proposing to view educational reform as political theater, I invite us all to start from the assumption that what is presented to us is fictions and then work our way through these fictions to separate that which can be plausible or worth more serious attention.

Second, it is worth remembering that in order to accomplish their intellectual and emotional purposes, dramatic performances utilize dramaturgical techniques that draw the audience in and allow them to experience events onstage in a particular way. Consider, for example, how light is used in theater. When an intense beam is focused on one character, that character is both seen and heard. Moreover, the character’s appearance is completely transformed to match director’s intentions for that character. Thus, what the audience sees is far from “the truth,” rather it is a construction that is intentionally set up to elicit a particular reaction from the audience. Apart from that, a focused beam of light also creates shadows – the areas of the stage that become invisible to the audience. The darkness that shrouds these areas conceals a lot of activity– stage crew might be changing sets or new characters step onstage but wait for their turn to step into the limelight. Yet again, this is all part of dramaturgical techniques deployed to elicit a particular response from the audience. This time it is the response of inattention: because those areas are covered by darkness, the audience most often ignores what is happening there. Consider how in policy debates some problems receive so much attention that it distorts our perception of the object that our attention is drawn to. The failure of public schools and university-based teacher education that politicians and reformers often bring up is a great example of such a distortion. Yet, the focused attention on these problems obscures how new actors enter policy conversations or grab a share of the teacher education market. In the field of teacher education policy, this becomes most clearly seen with the emergence of privately-run teacher academies or initial teacher preparation offered by corporate entities, such as Pearson. The growing role of non-profit and philanthropic organizations tied to the billionaire class in setting educational policy agendas in the US and internationally is similarly obscured by the intense focus on failing public institutions.

There are plenty of other examples of dramaturgical techniques that are applicable to educational policies and reforms. Some of those have already been explored in political science and in educational policy. A reasonable question to ask here is what we as educators, researchers, and citizens can do about this theatricality of politics.

Theater studies provide us with another way to approach political theater and suggest a possible answer to the question of what can be done about theatricality of politics. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been multiple efforts to reform theater and create a new form of aesthetics. Among many other innovators, Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are most relevant for this conversation. Influenced by the Russian and European socialist movements of the 20th century, Brecht was invested in creating a new form of theater – a political theater that educates the public about the social problems around them. Brecht was concerned about the effects of traditional theater that creates the illusion of social well-being and lulls audience into the position of inaction. To address this concern, he was interested in creating the types of performances that would push the audience to think, to question, to reflect, and to consider what actions can be undertaken to address the injustices around them. To achieve this goal, Brecht worked on what he called the A-effect – or alienation effect. Traditional theater is based on the principle of empathy and proximity – the actors’ goal is to get the audience to feel close to the characters they are portraying and to emphasize with their emotions and experiences. Brecht denounced the principle of empathy and proximity. Instead, he urged the actors to create the type of performances that will preserve the distance between the audience and their characters, inviting the audience to remain critical of what is happening onstage. The ultimate goal of the alienation effect is to get the audience to see the familiar world as something strange. Only this experience of strangeness can help the audience to see how social problems can be addressed. Building on Brecht’s work, Boal proposed to completely reconceptualize the role of the audience. Instead of remaining passive observers of what is happening onstage, the audience members are now invited to enter the performance to re-think and re-imagine the struggle, the conflict, and the outcome of the play. This, in a nutshell, is what came to be known as political theater in the twentieth century – theater that exposes social problems and subjects them to critical analysis, so that the audience would actively engage in pursuing solutions to these social problems.

Brecht’s and Boal’s writing helps us engage with educational reform as political theater, so that we as educators, researchers, or citizens can re-think our own roles in the performances that we observe and re-imagine alternatives set before us. Instead of accepting illusions of well-being or crisis presented to us on stages of media outlets or political campaigns, we need to pursue opportunities to distance ourselves from seductive rhetoric set before us and actively engage in reshaping the narratives of reform.

lights on the stage
Image Source

Educational Reforms as Political Theater

In the last twenty years, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of educational reforms around the world that more often than not bear heavy resemblances to each other. Pasi Sahlberg refers to these reforms as GERM – or Global Educational Reform Movement. Governments embark on transforming national education systems to allegedly improve quality and ultimately guarantee their country’s competitiveness in the knowledge economy. In my travels between China, the UAE, Russia, and the US, I have observed how governments were introducing various reforms to modernize educational systems, improve accountability, and prepare children for the 21st century. These reforms are getting increasingly more attention in educational research. Scholars, activists, and practitioners have begun to pay attention to the issues that these reforms created across a variety of international contexts – from privatization and marketization of public education to demonization and demoralization of the teaching force.

I want to push the conversation about these reforms further by exploring how various policy actors manufacture consensus or accomplish acceptance of the globally-circulated reforms that they propose, at least initially. My interest in these processes stems from a simple observation – if we as members of the public or members of professional communities possessed the tools for assessing, evaluating, and critically responding to policy proposals that come to define our experiences and shape our lives, we would be better equipped to contest them before they come to define our existence. I also wonder what it would take for us to consider ourselves members of a larger body – not disjointed individuals whose voices do not matter and whose choices do not affect others – but rather as a planetary community, members of which recognize that well-being of others has bearing on well-being of all. This recognition is particularly important given the fact that educational policies can target those members of the society who have school-aged children, or whose children don’t speak English as their first language, or whose children are learning to be productive members of society as they learn to operate within the confines and affordances of their disabilities. If we disassociate ourselves from the problems that plague members of particular communities to which we allegedly do not belong because those policies, measures, and reforms affect “those” people and children that are not our own, we will not be effective in mounting a creative and generative critique that can have the potential to improve all of our lives.

The questions that I am grappling with brought me into closer contact with the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, and Jacques Ranciere that explore the interaction between politics and aesthetics. These thinkers attempt to disentangle the issues of politics, social change, and fragmentation of our experiences in the age of spectacle – where we live entertained and controlled by images, distracted from bigger issues that shape our lives. In subsequent posts, I will share what I am learning through the work of these thinkers. I will also describe how their theories can be helpful for exploring educational reforms as political theater – or a process in which policy-makers, educational reformers, or edupreneurs engage in performances meant to distract the audience from bigger issues, lull them into accepting their construction of the problem, and disguise other activities that accompany these reforms. The purpose of this writing is to explore ways in which the processes of educational policy-making can be demystified and the sense of shared responsibility for our collective future can be restored. More on that next time.