Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Evergreen State College and the failure of liberal anarchism

As opposed to communist anarchism. I graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington after being a student there for two and a half years. On consideration, there were quite a few problems that could have been easily corrected if the administrators and teachers hadn't been so fundamentalist in their beliefs about the educational philosophy of the place.

Evergreen prides itself on having a student driven contributions to learning loom large. These are manifested especially in seminars, meetings that make up half of the instruction. Seminars are discussions that are student lead, more or less, formally lead by one of the instructors. Evergreen runs on interdisciplinary programs instead of on individual classes, so you always have several teachers.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, with Evergreen comes from having so much student involvement, from having the absolute autonomy of individual student respected even when the greater group suffers. At Evergreen, I saw students who hadn't done their work dominate seminar discussions, talking about nothing, and when called on it they accused others of infringing on their rights, and the teachers supported them. The absolute respect Evergreen gives to individuals includes a consent to  break the rules and get away with it. All an individual has to do is invoke their individual autonomy and make a half hearted excuse and suddenly their negative behavior,  often interfering with the functioning of the class, is absolved.

This makes life for many other students suck, quite frankly. This tolerance for individuality includes tolerance for people who have come from non-academically rigorous backgrounds who complain about the tempo of the work. Often, in response, the work and difficulty level that the program does is reduced to fit that level, instead of the instructors telling the students to work harder and stop complaining. Requirements for work can also be mysteriously forgiven if  students can think up a convincing excuse about why exactly they weren't able to do the work. The sound of a thousand tiny violins fills the air, and many instructors are taken in by these exaggerations and lies from their students.

Laziness and dishonesty amongst the students are widespread, and most of that behavior has the purpose of  getting away with having to do as little work as possible. The instructors often play along, and the rules of grading sometimes have little value in practice, leading to a double standard between the students who actually do the work and the lazy students who lie to get out of it.

This is liberal, individualistic, anarchism taken to an extreme, to an extreme where the group suffers from the actions of a few. A more communist ideal of anarchism would include a responsibility to the group as part of its credo,  a group that is in turn anchored first in the material structure of society and second in the community. The point here is that the rights of the sovereign individual alone are not the summum bonum, the be all and end all for society. Individualism is great if it can be demonstrated that the individual's actions do not hurt others.  Society is a combination of the individual and the group, and both have to work well for everyone to prosper.


drea said...

I am not sure what professors or what disciplines you studied under, but mine would actively check in with students about if they had done the reading, if they hadn't they were asked to not come to seminar, thus not receiving credit for that portion. This is true especially for the sciences. I know a lot of people who didn't receive full credit based on their work as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree about with the statement regarding the administration but as far as students lying to get out of work and bitching about rights infringed, I think you shoot wide of the mark. First off students at every school across the country bitch and lie to get by; saying it happens more at Evergreen without providing any explicit evidence to back up that claim feels a little unsubstantiated. Furthermore, all schools of anarcho-political theory are utopian at best. The students at evergreen definitely suffer because of the administrations inability to hold people accountable, but they also suffer from a small group of fundamentalist anarcho-idiots. Anarchocommunist ideology is rooted in violence expounded by politicians elasticizing the works of others to fit your needed or desired meeting. All such anarchists should be treated as sociopolitical terrorists, including these Greeners who seek to "Smash the state...by any means necessary."

John Madziarczyk said...

@Anonymous...well, first of all, it's not just unsubstantiated. I saw this stuff first hand and could give very detailed accounts of it...but doing so would put a lot of people's lives out there on the net, even if I didn't name names.

Second, I'm not sure where exactly you got your notion of anarcho-communism from. I don't consider anarcho-communists to be politicians, to be inherently violent, and I certainly don't view them as "sociopolitical terrorists".

When it comes to the cult of personality, I suppose that that can manifest in any political group, but I don't see anything in Anarcho-Communism that makes them more susceptible to this than others.

AMThompson said...

Best part of Evergreen is that it's on the students to involve themselves in the process.

It's not just on the faculty to be arbiters of the seminar process. Students can call other students to task for taking over the seminar.

Your assertion that you witnessed students take seminars over is a confession of your own bystander effect or complicity in that take over. Every student can bring a seminar back on topic by citing the program covenant and by pointing out the tangential argument.

I will say, yes, because individual students are competing with themselves the metric for credits can shift--the evaluations themselves highlight that the abilities of the students are very different. Students who are given credit but who did not do all the work usually are younger students just cutting their teeth, and their evals usually are not strong. Remember that the entire benefit of having the Evergreen transcript and diploma rests on being demonstrably competent in post-college life. If someone slacks their way through Evergreen and acquires no usable skill set they will walk away from college with a very expensive piece of paper. This experience is true at any institution--sitting through lectures and cheating on tests to get a diploma may open some doors to careers but not having the skills precludes employment.

I agree that there is a problem with the credit awarding. In the sciences there is an "all or nothing" expectation which fails promising students who work hard, do all the work, but don't pass tests or master the material. In one chemistry and physics program I worked doggedly but just didn't grok it and I was awarded no credit for most of the program. And there was no real appealing that. (And there were students who cheated their way to credit then bombed the subsequent quarter.) Having a total loss of credit can ruin a financial aid award and knock students completely out of school. So an all or nothing credit award is grossly punitive. In another program I was again struggling and working hard and because that faculty understood the stakes--and could see I was conceptually proficient if not mastering the skills (Calc III)--awarded me credit for concepts and introduction to the disciplines. This is a negotiation of credit award but not academically dishonest as I would then have to do more work to demonstrate knowledge to get into future studies that relied on the mathematical toolkit I was just introduced to.

Anyway, its possible your assessment of the Evergreen experience was still in its naissance.