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From Warhol To Bourdieu And From Art To The Creation Of Technocratic Drones Comes A Discussion About Considering Vocationalism As A Virtue Rather Than A Limitation

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By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

June 19, 2014 — Upon reviewing a copy of the Bedford Book of Genres for potential adoption in teaching an introductory composition course, recently, I found that when I described the book to colleagues, the words, ‘business English’ came to mind. Among a scant palette of typical writing exercises such as arguments, memoirs, and researched essays, the book offered numerous occupational lessons in writing like the composition of “ads and slogans, blog posts, complaint letters, fact sheets, how-to guides, infographics, charts, lists, memos, obituaries, reports and resumes, and cover letters.”

I soon found myself thinking of something Andy Warhol once said in his familiarly flat affect. It described the factory model of business for which he would become famous: A conflation of artistic and commercial production, or art answering the call of demand instead of originating from a space transcending economics.

“After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business — they’d say, ‘money is bad,’ and ‘working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Warhol remarked.

And he was right in anticipating the disdain some would have for the fusion of art and commerce. The romantic myth of the artist is deconstructed by the suggestion of a money muse. That just isn’t the way people want to think about the source of creativity, let alone the suggestion of money-making as art.

That philosophical point-of-view reflects the ideology of the Bedford Book of Genres in terms of its promotion of Business English.

Is the Bedford textbook a goof on the Ivory Tower conception of the university or does it signify a new way of doing the business of English? The book seems symptomatic of a paradigm shift in English instruction purely designed in the interest of cultivating skills and dispositions synchronous with the information-service economy.  
   
This issue is embedded in a broader conversation on academic vocationalism.

W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson in Vocationalism in Higher Education: The Triumph of the Education Gospel, trace the most aggressive form of vocational education to the creation of the G.I. Bill and the proliferation of low-cost, public, academic institutions which provided myriad “occupational majors.” The authors contend that scholars have been unable to persuasively argue the “civic, intellectual and moral purpose” of a liberal arts education against that market-imposed rationale for study.

Stanley Aronowitz in Against Schooling: Education and Social Class, defines a difference between occupational “schooling” and intellectual “education” and claims that current academic practices reproduce class-based inequalities by offering a texturally distinct training that leads the majority of students to positions as low-level, technocratic drones.

It’s important to consider these points in terms of what the Bedford book represents.

Reading cultural practices like a doctor, the textbook illustrates a problematic way of thinking about the meaning and value of reading and writing. On one hand, the distinctly occupational exercises demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between skills learned and the future position the student hopes to occupy, a correspondence that contemporary students believe is the point of their education. On the other hand, this practice represents the most simplified form of training in which information is efficiently structured, compartmentalized, and delivered in a way that the student receives an index of the subject and no more.

This form of schooling does not represent the cultivation of critical thinking that one would expect to acquire in college. Such a philosophy, distilled in the organization and presentation of the material, proposes vocationalism as a virtue instead of a limitation.

Here is another illustration, again from textbooks, of the rationalization of literacy studies presented as an advantage.      

New versions of old books, specifically literary anthologies, are now repackaged with language like: “Shorter,” “Brief,” and “Concise,” as if the former textbooks, and maybe the total practice of English itself, were just a windbag. Textbook companies are pushing a leaner, presumably more vital, and “sexier” brand of English designed for a demographic that doubts literature’s utility. From a Bourdieuian perspective, Literature Lite is a metastatic version of the “less is more” principle, one that generates quick returns but impoverishes students without inherited cultural capital.

Reading the rhetoric of textbook production as a cultural metaphor reveals that, as opposed to being steered by academics, Business English is currently driven by textbook companies. They’re like an army of Warholian envoys who bear the liberatory message that literacy is infinitely elastic. It could be anything: A Tweeted announcement for a sale on adult incontinence undergarments or a flash-definitional essay on the neologism “app” posted as a wiki entry. The market use and value of reading and writing now determines the form of its expression. Perhaps this is positive, if the most we can expect of literacy is to facilitate buying and selling.     
   
Business-writing games are seductive like the Sirens’ song. They promise fun but they harden class divisions. But maybe that’s inevitable, like TED Talks or Fascism.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.
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