The national conversation about Common Core highlights the importance of creating a national conversation on the purpose and the deployment of education. Equally relevant to this discussion is that of students’ own agency in the educational setting.
Feminist Poststructuralism and the National Conversation on Education
Is feminism still a scary word? It should not be, but I can understand why it causes such a strong reaction, today. Today, we are living in a time when many of us have a better quality of life thanks to those who fought for change. It is difficult to imagine outright segregation based on the color of one’s skin, for example. (Yet, American-style-apartheid still exists, at least in theory.) Witness the latest controversy over remarks allegedly made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling about not wanting his girlfriend to be seen in public with people whose skin contains more melanin than his does. Granted, this notion of separatism is viewed by many as old-fashioned thinking. But organizational theorists consider the way institutions shape people’s understanding of the world. Like sports, education is an institution with specific cultural norms.
The example of the Clippers-owner’s rules about social exclusion based on skin color harkens to the past when Jim Crow segregation was institutionalized throughout American society, including educational institutions. That this kind of exclusion-discourse appeared in the context of American professional basketball raises all kinds of questions for cultural studies scholars. Anyone interested in organizations, and how organizations shape thought, might consider how people involved in institutions experience the institution. It does not matter if the institution is a pro-basketball team, or a school, or a university, there are specific cultural norms that need to be evaluated, and made transparent, when possible. Poststructural feminism is one method of analysis.
When feminists talk about agency, they often look at men and women in situations and perform interpretive analysis. Poststructural feminists are interested in issues of equality and equity.
Back to Agency
The term agency is applicable to the study of insitutions, people in them, and the way people are organized within them, and that is why the feminist poststructural-term agency is a great term to include in a discussion of American education.
Humanities scholars recognize that my use of the term agency is theoretical. Agency is a feminist theoretical concept that asks participants to imagine the what the Other is going through, or has been through, in any given situation. Theorists of feminism think of agency in different ways. For example, Diamond and Quinby (1988) liken agency to standing against oppression. While, Davies (1991) likens agency to creation of self.
American education analysts and commentators might improve the quality of discussion on the topic of American higher education if they include plenty of space in the conversation for students’ own narratives of how they negotiate the process of educational attainment.
Focus on Progress
Whenever I am confronted with the realities of American Education, the challenges, the debates, the controversies, and the success stories, I am mindful of the success stories in which students triumph, despite the statistics. The researcher in me wonders what role does culture play in the constitution of statistics purporting to predict student success? Why do we not hear or read more stories about how students become great contributors to our communities through their active participation in schools? By the way, this applies to college, graduate, and professional students, too.
Attaining an education can be distilled into these qualities: preparing the seeker of an education for a life of quality, based upon the ideals of reflection, service, creativity, action, and compassion.
In conclusion, consider the great American painter Norman Rockwell.
Not too long ago, Vanity Fair did a retrospective on Norman Rockwell, touching on his role as political commentator.
I suggest that we revisit the world Rockwell interpreted through his art, and look at how far we have come. Then, we may envision the future, together.
Davies, Bronwyn. “The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis” in Social Analysis, Vol. 30, 1991.
Diamond, Irene and Lee Quinby. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988.