Identity Resistance and Market-Based Political Culture at a Small Liberal Arts School

By Mortenson, Jesse | Human Architecture, Fall-Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Identity Resistance and Market-Based Political Culture at a Small Liberal Arts School


Mortenson, Jesse, Human Architecture


INTRODUCTION

In this essay, I tell the story of my encounter as a student with the dominant political culture at Macalester College, a small liberal arts undergraduate college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I argue that market strategies employed by the administration significantly contribute to the shape of that political culture by producing and reproducing the student body as a bundle of social locations and collective political selfidentities. As a process deeply implicated in identity formation, both prior to and during the experience of arrival, this constitution of political culture through market strategies was susceptible to my efforts at critical interpretation using identity-based resources.

First, my high school decision to identify as a (closeted) gay male while learning how to navigate and wield institutions, and consequent notions of an institutional failure to address homophobia, lent me a skeptical form of institutional agency. Second, the particular sets of knowledge woven through my parents' working class family network discouraged me from seeing higher education clearly as a market choice. This granted me some distance from the constitutive effects of Macalester's market strategies, especially regarding how I related to campus political culture. In this distance, I fashioned a counter-hegemonic political consciousness. The images that Macalester spokespeople use to identify the school as a particular choice within the "elite liberal arts college" market are received (or not) and interpreted by potential students largely according to their socioeconomic trajectories and prior experiences with academic institutions. The most prominent market strategy is the image of Macalester as a haven for liberal politics, which consequently collapses the range of what is considered to be legitimately a "political issue" to United States and international politics.

A secondary, but equally important image is that of academic excellence, which elevates a market evaluation of academic practices over all other values. These market strategies contributed to a number of limitations in student and administrative institutions that deflected the otherwise visible strands of critical social theory taught in many classrooms from manifestation as concrete campus policies. My "final battle" with a market strategy-infused campus political culture-the failed struggle to retain a social justice policy for College admissions called need-blind admissions-reveals ways in which (especially class) identity stands at the center of campus politics.

A NOTE ON PERSPECTIVE

We all write and identify through our contingent social locations. I speak primarily through the experiences of a white, Minnesota-born, economically-stable working class boy growing up through the ambiguous process of class advancement by way of access to cultural capital in a wealthy, exurban school district. My theoretical training has equipped me to speak tentatively (but without guilt) of the historical confluences and mutually-constituted dynamics of race, class, gender and sexuality. My most serious blindness is to the specific professional/class concerns and opportunities of international students. This is important because 14% of students come from 80 countries other than the United States, and "internationalism" is viewed as a top institutional principle and selling point for the school. Secretary-General of the United Nations and Macalester graduate Kofi Annan is deemed a semi-official mascot for the school.1 This essay is not meant to be an adequate survey of all students' experiences of Macalester's political culture. I hope to explain the encounter between my developing identity/political consciousness and this political culture from my specifically grounded position and through my experience participating regularly in public spaces of contest around campus.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: THE MIDDLE CLASS AND THE ACADEMY

The interaction between student identities and institutionalized market strategies occurs within a broader context of the reproduction of class by the United States educational system. …

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