Academic journal article Theory in Action

From Apathy to Activism: Civic-Mindedness, Critical Pedagogy, and the Sociological Imagination

Academic journal article Theory in Action

From Apathy to Activism: Civic-Mindedness, Critical Pedagogy, and the Sociological Imagination

Article excerpt

Only those who choose to serve humanity rather than to get caught up in the scramble for all the immediate rewards of finance and status can know the pleasures and lasting rewards of such a pursuit. Alfred McClung Lee (1978:16-17)

Why college? At the beginning of every semester, I typically ask my students why they decided to go to college and what they hoped to gain from their college education. While some cite parental expectations and pressures, for the majority of students attending college constitutes a career investment. For these students college is mostly a matter of "getting" a degree. Others speak of acquiring marketable knowledge and skills. For them education is primarily of vocational significance. Be it a matter of acquiring academic credentials, knowledge and skills or both, going to college is largely a means to an end: career, occupational status, monetary rewards, and upward social mobility. For other students education is an end in itself. Here we can distinguish between performance-oriented and learning-oriented students. To the former being "successful" means getting good grades. Learning-oriented students, on the other hand, value education for its own sake. For them, being well educated and knowledgeable (often understood as "getting smarter") is prima facie evidence of satisfactory personal growth and development.

Whether education is viewed as a means to an end or as an end in itself, the majority of students I encounter in my capacity as a college professor perceive the benefits of their education in narrowly selffocused, individualistic, and overly instrumental terms. Students who see their higher education as a way to contribute to the public good are exceedingly rare. Concludes Giroux:

As freedom is defined increasingly through the logic of consumerism, the dynamics of self-interest... and all things private, there seems to be a growing disinterest.... in such non-commercial values as empathy, compassion, loyalty, caring, trust, and solidarity that bridges the private and the public and give substance to the meaning of citizenship, democracy, and public life. Giroux (2001:2)

This lack of publically oriented values and priorities among students must be understood sociologically in terms of the broader socioeconomic and cultural trends and the accompanying transformation of American higher education (e.g. corporatization and vocationalization of post-secondary schooling, depoliticized pedagogies). Writes Williams:

The traditional idea of the university as a not-for-profit institution that offers a liberal education and enfranchises citizens of the republic, not to mention the more radical view that the university should foster a socially critical if not revolutionary class has been evacuated without much of a fight. Williams (1999:744)

Likewise writes Samuel Hazo (2000): "The current collegiate goal is not ...wisdom but proficiency (in marketable skills), not breadth of knowledge but adjustment, not cultural understanding but social (upward) mobility." And reviewing thirty years of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Annual Freshman College Experience Survey, Astin observed: "In the late 1960s, developing a meaningful philosophy of life was the top value, . . . 'being very well-off financially,' on the other hand, lagged far behind, ...Since that time, these two values have basically traded places" (1998:132).

According to 'Dale and Kalob (2006), sociology students' instrumental/consumerist disposition towards their chosen major is also due to how sociology is conventionally taught: "In our view the standard undergraduate curriculum in sociology does not even come close to reflecting, to say nothing about embracing, the commitments of humanist sociology. . ..There is a yawning gap between the sociology curriculum to which most undergraduates are exposed and basic humanist aspirations" (p. 142). Similarly, a recent survey-based study by Wagenaar (2004:12) suggests that sociology professors consider teaching "social responsibility" and "how to bring about change" much less important than teaching "writing and speaking skills," "sociological critical thinking," or "how to use and assess research. …

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