Higher education, finally

MitWe have a problem in higher education.  Students must now choose between cultural studies and professional studies (specifically, business school).

If they choose the former, they swear off real engagement (and full employment) in the world.  If they choose latter, they swear off a deeper knowledge of the culture in which they will compete.

This is a long standing problem.  It plays out that distinction between the "world renouncing" liberal arts and the "world embracng" professional studies.  But it is a problem that has been made more grevious by two things: the continual retreat from the world performed by cultural studies and the continual interpenetration of culture and commerce in the marketplace.  The rapproachment of the two fields is, in other words, both more difficult and more urgent.

Let me put this more concretely.  Most business schools do nothing to advance the cultural literacy of the MBA graduate.  This despite the fact that success in marketing, innovation, management and the capital markets now turns more and more on a mastery here.  I noticed this particularly at the Harvard Business School, where almost without exception knowledge of contemporary culture is excluded from the classroom.  Occasionally, when teaching there, I would make a contemporary culture reference (Righteous Babe Records, the early long tail experiment by Ani DiFranco, say).  Students would look at me in astonishment, either because they had never heard of Ms. DiFranco, or because they knew her music perfectly well but never "in a million years" expected to hear her name spoken at HBS.

I am on record as believing that cultural studies has  systematically removed itself not just from real world usefulness but from any intellectual vantage point that would allow us thoughtfully to examine the interactions of culture and commerce.

The question has long been who would step up and create a program in the excluded middle?  Who would establish a rapprochment between these two worlds? Who would create a program that was fully informed and fully engaged?

I wonder whether blogging might someday serve this role.  How would we turn the materials that issue from the blogging world into the stuff of a higher education?  Interesting question, one that my new colleagues at Corante may well someday answer.

In the meantime, I am happy to report that the Comparative Media Studies at MIT is making extraordinary strides.  I realised this when responding this morning to a request on the part of a Dartmouth undergraduate who asked me to recommend a graduate program.  My reply:

Dear Sarah,

Thanks for your note.  I am happy to make myself useful in the review of some of the options, but I have to say I was yesterday  (belately) getting to know the people at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, and it’s a really impressive program (and probably your best choice).

The graduate students would be a joy to have as colleagues.  […] 

The core of the enterprise is Henry Jenkins, and he is the odds-on-bet for the most gifted/prolific/seminal/formative guy in the field of contemporary culture.  He is well published which gives you a chance to have a look and decide if his approach works for you. 

Finally, the program appears to be breaking out of that world renouncing reflex of the academic world and is now working with some of the cultural producers in contemporary culture (e.g., MTV) in the creation of a real partnership.  This effectively collapses the distance between cultural studies and the business schools, using one to make up the deficit of the other.

All in all, it’s a pretty good choice for graduate study, equally useful as preparation for further academic study or a career in the world.  Hope this helps.  Let’s talk if there is anything I’ve left out or can elaborate on.  Best, Grant


McCracken, Grant. 2005. Culture studies and capital markets: parallel or converging?
November 08, 2005. here.  (for more on my unhappiness with Cultural Studies)

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Professor Quelch and the marketing manager
October 11, 2005. here.  (for more on my unhappiness with the b-school world)

8 thoughts on “Higher education, finally

  1. MT

    Interesting. I guess it’s an old point of discussion, but one I remember framed differently (e.g. conservative vs. liberal goals for education). I’m sort of a hippie and a snob at heart, so it feels like capitulating or giving up to treat MTV or video games as culture. Must we be practical? I suppose universities want to be normative more than merely descriptive–they’re for educating people, after all. I wonder if you’re right though. It seems like there’s nothing sexier in the humanities than to turn your lens to pop culture. You see it in the titles of abstracts about Buffy and Madonna. And at least some sociologists of science were excited about cold fusion as it was happening. What are you thinking are the wrong things to be studying in cultural studies? Baudrillard? Is your complaint in effect that cultural studies are too theoretical and not enough applied?

  2. steve

    To MT: The problem is that much of the cultural studies stuff is (explicitly or implicitly) framed in terms of an oppression/resistance template. So British punks were interpreted as anti-Thatcher resisters (even though those who know the territory insist that the whole thing was about creating personal style). Or fan communities are treated as resisting hetero-normative discourse or some such. I’m obviously painting with an enormously broad brush (maybe a Wagner powerpainter), but I think that’s what Grant is reacting to.

  3. MT

    I think there’s nothing wrong with seeing things as oppression so long as you don’t get all resentful and hopeless about it. Gramsci’s hegemony (about which I’ve read only the back cover of the Cliff Notes) seems like it could just be fashion. Isn’t there a risk of viewing people as vapid consumers? Something profound goes on, because humans are profound by nature, at least to ourselves. Also something political goes on, since at least to some degree the personal is the political. But the original post seemed to be more about content than theoretical bent. “I want my MTV” it seemed to be saying, not “I want to my MTV to be seen by scholars as just a way I’m trying to be cool and not to strain against the psychic chains with which the superstructure binds me”

  4. Pingback: The TrueTalk Blog

  5. Jayne

    Having recently finished the process of applying to Cultural Studies PhD programs with the goal of retooling myself for the business world, your post gave me a bit of hope that my personal statement wasn’t simply a 1000-word narrative account of the chasing of my own tail. Of course, when I speak to others in my field (I currently work as a Sales Director) about my plans to reenter academia by way of Cultural Studies, their response is most often sung to the tune of “Oh, so you really want to change direction?”

    Thank you for reaffirming my repetitively abrupt “no.”

  6. Patricia

    Having an undergraduate degree in Visual Art and several years advertising experience, I decided several years ago to return to school for Anthropology instead of an MFA. Last May graduating with both a BA [anthro] and MA [applied anthro]. I’m still working in advertising, but hope to somehow ‘marry’ my experience, skills, and education into services that are unique. When I returned to school for the anthro, everyone, including my employer, thought I was nuts, thinking I’d end up a professor :). Although I’d like to teach adjunct as a professor at a community college just for the experience, my aspirations are firmly planted in the real world. Having my background I am fascinated with popular culture and its visual presence. Although the scholarly elite may be condescending to popular culture studies, the mechanisms behind pop culture should not be overlooked since they shape the future, for good or ill. I believe that theory w/o application is useless. Any discipline pondering its collective navel should also offer an intelligent and creative outlet for its application, otherwise it will essentially lose its value within culture and be pushed aside for more innovative solutions. Thanks for your post, and your blog, which I find quite interesting.

  7. JohnO

    I’m a programmer by trade, yet feel a massive discord like Grant is describing – so take that stereotypes. As a recent graduate (I’m 22) the educational situation is not good in this country. I grew up on Long Island, and (supposedly) went to one of the best high schools (Harborfields) there. My senior year I took 4 AP (college level) classes, and slept through them all, receiving college credit (4 credits shy of entering as a sophmore). This isn’t meant as a brag, I’m smart enough to know that I am stupid. Going to college (RIT) wasn’t much different than high school either. I graduated .01 shy on my GPA from higher honors while my roomate (an engineering major) constantly was angry at the lack of work I did.

    To quote some pop-culture from Almost Famous, some of the grades are all filler. Even in college. Some of the courses are absolutely useless. None of the courses go deep enough into the subject matter, and if it is meant to be an intro course, none go wide enough. I only wish I had more motivation (that I’m getting now) to take things seriously and make something profitable out of my off time.

    Education in this country is really poor. As another example, my parents (and youngest sister) moved from Long Island, to Charlotte NC. On Long Island, she was barely passing math. After a month in Charlotte, they wanted to move her into the advanced math class. Scary.

    Also to take note, is the serious decline in kids who are inclined to read books! Wow, books are great.

Comments are closed.