This week’s readings on assessment, grading, and motivation offers an interesting study of politics and education. I’ll return to this in a moment, but in short, we find Kohn suggesting and Riley demonstrating the obligation of educators to challenge standards and structures that essentially remove the “liberal” from liberal education. On the other hand, we find Liu and Noppe-Brandon arguing to liberate imagination, even collective imagination, and yet seemingly oblivious to the social conditions that allow for some imaginations to be much more expansive and possible to realize than others.
Now Liu and Noppe-Brandon aren’t necessarily wrong in their argument and possibilities for imagination. They rightly challenge the myths that constrain imagination. And yet their own imagination seems oddly constrained within a dominant social and political order. They cite the 9/11 commission for instance, that found “the government failed to imagine that terrorists might strike at America in such a stunningly symbolic, asymmetrically powerful way.” But what about the imagination that would question the very motivations of the terrorists? Of course if the dominant rhetoric is because “they are radical Islam,” or they are simply evil, one doesn’t need to have any further imagination.
Liu and Noppe-Brandon also suggest that imagination trumps material conditions. They cite, for instance, J.K. Rowling’s imagination of “a world of wizards and limit-bending acts of magic when all around her was the harsh scarcity of welfare and single motherhood.” That’s all very well, indeed, especially for those of us who were privileged with a good education, a good family, a good community, or something else. But what about those individuals who have none of these, because the once-strong community and family they had were trashed by an economic order that has gutted and sent overseas the industries and jobs once found in these communities? It feels so utterly empty, so patronizing, asking them to “think big” in the face of this despair. Can’t we do better?
And Lombardi… well honestly, she kinda lost me with her invocation of Margaret Spellings as the source of an education goal we should really pay attention to. For Spellings, apparently, her model of the students is solely as an (neoliberal) economic entity that is positioning themselves to be competitive in a global marketplace. And while she doesn’t say it directly, this will “Make America Great Again.” Lombardi seems mostly silent on any larger purposes of education… such as, hypothetically of course, preparing a citizenry to recognize and challenge a political regime that is eroding if not more directly tearing apart and undermining democratic institutions.
Riley, however, is really getting at something. She is a political agent, as she recognizes that engineering education, just like any education, can never be removed from politics. She is challenging the structures, standards, and leadership that would reduce engineering education to a technical skill, and deprive this education of ethics, and its political nature. For instance, she makes an important distinction between policy and politics: “By shifting to the term policy instead of political, ABET is shrinking the intended domain of action for engineers. Understanding the political contexts that give rise to engineering projects, and analyzing potential political implications is an essential professional capacity.” Similarly, she challenges what seems to be a minor change in ethics, to something that has quite significant implications: “Removing the professional context in which engineering ethics is necessarily practiced and replacing it with the word “principles” evokes personal morality (as in, “Does one, or doesn’t one, have principles?”).” Riley doesn’t just take engineering education as something that can be isolated from its larger social and political contexts. It is something that is inherently immersed in these contexts, and a responsible and ethical engineering education must not just have ethics or political education as something added in as an extra course or two. They must be integrated into engineering education, throughout the curriculum.