EDPS 360 (A2) Fall 2013

Posts Tagged ‘barbara ehrenreich’

Education as a “Positional Good”

In Activities on October 26, 2013 at 11:00 am
Do you ever feel caught up in a “rat race” in your education? In generations before yours (assuming you are a 20-something), post-secondary education was much more a rite-of-passage: an opportunity to explore the world and learn about oneself. But many young adults today are instead pre-occupied with the anxiety of positioning themselves for entry into a tough labour market. Teachers and parents may have fuelled this anxiety for you and/or your peers with dire warnings that adulthood without some sort of post-secondary credential is a dead end. Under such conditions, education can become an exercise without joy.
In our next class, we’ll spend some time thinking about and discussing the conditions that have led to education as a tenuous defense against what Barbara Ehrenreich (1989) described as a middle class Fear of Falling. Ultimately, we hope you’ll be able draw on the readings below and  some of your own experiences and observations to think about the link between formal education and social mobility. To this end, we’ll unpack two questions:

1) What are positional goods, and how do they relate to education and credentials?

Once we’ve got that sorted out:

2) How does education relate to social mobility?

Start with Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities and the secret thereof,” taken from Capital Vol. I, Ch. 1. It’s a brain buster, but see if you can work out what it means to “fetishize” something (still not sure? see herehere, and, less obviously here). Also, try to figure out the distinction between “use value” and “exchange value” in commodities (or “goods” – we’ll use those terms interchangeably).

The two short articles on weddings and test preparation for elite kindergartens (no kidding!) are current examples of “positional competition,” a concept which will be taken up in more detail in an excerpt from a 2002 Keynote entitled “The Opportunity Trap: education and employment in a global economy.” In this lecture, Phillip Brown challenges the rhetoric of governments and international organizations like the OECD that “knowledge economies” demand increasing levels of education. As you read this excerpt, see if you can deepen your understanding of “positional conflict” and make connections to the two short pieces you’ve just read (Administrators note: oops! forgot to link to this great blog post!) . How does this lead to the “opportunity trap,” and (just for fun,) why is this a particular problem for the middle class? Also, give some thought to how education and credentials “sort and select” people for occupations.

Finally – and this isn’t directly addressed in the readings but we’ll take it up in class – give some thought to why different occupations are differently valued. Because people wouldn’t chase “good jobs” if we didn’t have some sense of what a “good job” is. Being paid well is kind of a no-brainer, but is that all that’s going on? Why do some occupations have lots of status even though they don’t pay as well as others? See if you can think of some examples of “high status” and “low status” occupations, and ask yourself what, besides pay, causes people to make these distinctions?

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