Monday, January 31, 2005

"...the armchair radicalism of Orientalism, neocolonialism, deconstructionism, white studies, critical race theory, queer theory, blah blah blah."

Samuel G. Freedman has a piece in the Times on an "invisible" Mexican janitor, the privileged brats of Stanford who ignore him, and the somewhat-patronizing (in my view) tutoring program meant to bridge that gap. We learn, of the janitor, "He earns $10.14 an hour at a university whose students pay nearly $40,000 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board." I wonder how many Stanford students actually pay this amount, and how many students there also work similar jobs, with similar pay and similar (in)visibility. But, moreover, there is an unavoidable conflict: Either such jobs are reserved for those who need them, i.e. not students looking to earn some extra pocket money, and there is a hard-drawn line between the invisible workers and the pampered students, or these jobs are open to all, students and non-students alike, and, while fewer jobs will be available to those looking to support their families, the dynamic on campus will be a more egalitarian one, with less of a caste system, and with student-workers and non-student workers interacting in normal work settings. Ideally, some kind of balance between the two can be struck.

Freedman continues: For the Stanford students, meanwhile, the tutoring provides a sense of purpose and human connection that cannot be taught. Many of these undergraduates won admission partly by doing "community service" for the most cynical of reasons, to build their résumés. Their courses here resound with the armchair radicalism of Orientalism, neocolonialism, deconstructionism, white studies, critical race theory, queer theory, blah blah blah.

While what I suggest may sound like levelling down when levelling up is possible, and while it may be just that, I would rather see students and non-students working side by side (as is the case in the U of C libraries) than see a tutoring program in which the "we help them" dynamic is maintained. There's something unpleasant about students learning from distinguished professors while the best a janitor can hope for is some kid barely out of high school, encouraging him to write poetry about...being a janitor. An ideal situation would be if Stanford offered some kind of adult education (no clue if it ever has) to its staff, taught by actual Stanford professors, while permitting its students to have that great learning experience that is a less-than-fascinating job. The question, though, is whether Stanford students are as willing as Chicago students to take such jobs. Much depends on the availability of research jobs to undergrads and on the overall wealth of the undergrad student body. The cheery stores and coffee shops near the Princeton University campus always seem to have help-wanted signs, while there is no doubt in my mind that if similar establishments were to open in Hyde Park (and no, "Third World Coffee" doesn't count), Chicago students would be fighting to work there.

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