Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends

[gary daily col. 40 November 10, 2002]








“The
farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plow, the otherlikes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.”
-from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma

Out on the high plateaus of the educational ranges of America, university trustees and administrators have found an affinity for the “cowman” in this famous musical Oklahoma ditty. Cowman-administrators saddle up and spend long hours chasing cows. In their case it’s cash cows of various shapes and sizes. And, sitting tall in silver-studded saddles, silhouetted against the skyline of campus quads, they are increasingly heard to croon an off-key song with “where’s the beef” and “execs gotta do what execs gotta do” refrains.

In sharp contrast, many farmer-teachers working in the valley of education want nothing more than to “push a plow” on the small plots that are their classrooms. They give little thought to the need of rounding up those obstreperous dollar doggies. (Unless, of course, the round up results in fertilizer grants for a specialized research crop they are particularly interested in.) Trouble brews when the cowman-administrator's chase of the cash cow starts to trample trails into the work and crops of the farmer-teacher. Interested more in the sowing and nurturing side of their work than in the chimera of any final harvest, the farmer-teacher can be heard humming an old song between tightened lips. Two lines go: “The farmer is the man who feeds us all,/ But it’s the middleman who gets it all.”

“Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.”

The farmer and the cowman do live and work in the same educational territory. They “should stick together,” but if they can or “cain’t” be “pals” remains a problem to be solved. It’s a complex, many-sided problem we all might think about.

University administrators--particularly administrators at under-funded, slimly endowed, state institutions--are expected to work with, inform and, more problematically, cater to their many publics’ expectations. Caving to real and imagined expectations, Presidents and their ever-growing corps of agents spread across the land droning a song of education they assume to be pleasing and familiar to their important publics. This song has become a monotonous dirge, almost a TV jingle complete with smiley face. It goes like this: “Education is a product and we’ve got the store where you should shop. So come on down."

In this ballad of the bottom-line, learning is equated only with earning. Students are transformed into “customers.” Course credits are only steps toward jobs. And degrees are only glorified “union cards.” Naturally student customers come to expect this, parents of student customers demand it, and state legislatures, tuned only to their voter-customers’ immediate desires and complaints, sing this Johnny one-note song into the dark night.

Meanwhile, teachers work within the space of four walls. You may see them as being either sadly out-of-touch or brilliantly resistant. Whichever, they continue to approach education as something other and more than rational egoism in service to homo economicus, economic man. From a dizzying range of disciplines and perspectives, most teachers work to impart in their students habits of mind and an opening of the imagination to ideas, values and information. Education for them is not a product and students are neither patronised nor defrauded by being treated like customers.

Administrators increasingly apply the club of efficiency to the tissue of education. They are trained and acclimated to the joys of the bloodless work flow chart, the daily/weekly/monthly/ yearly “progress” report--post-medieval instruments of assessment and evaluation, and other assorted tools of information collection, analysis, and potential retribution. This is not easy work for them. Long hours at many meetings are required to achieve this. “Efficiency,” however, in the service of “product” and the “customer’s satisfaction," to say nothing of potential savings in “work cost items” on the ol’ balance sheet, are well worth these herculean bureaucratic efforts.

Teachers, need I say it, are generally uncomfortable, or at least ambivalent, with these efforts. They are often divided against themselves on some aspects of the continuing tectonic shift of undergraduate education away from the intellectual and toward the vocational. But they remain convinced that their business, teaching, is best understood by teachers. And, in terms of progress (sic) reports, they are generally in agreement in seeing education as something that is initiated in the present but can only be achieved and known, if at all, in some unspecified future.

Cowman-administrators and farmer-teachers, maybe they are “Territory folks who should stick together,”-- but “cain’t.”

Perhaps hard-pressed administrators and solidly principled teachers live, work and think in two very distinct worlds. It’s easy to see that pay, perks and, perhaps most importantly, the frames of time governing the rituals and practices of their work lives differ dramatically. The layered world of administrators can become imperious, enamored of its power and status in what it simplistically calls “the real world”; the teacher's world can drift-- insulated, isolated and filled with anger and remorse because ideals and intellectual integrity are increasingly being diminished or ignored.

“But,” as in the song, “that's no reason why they cain't be friends.”

Or is it?

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