Monthly Archives: November 2013

Vassar Administration=the “West”

Having a class discussion about the equal opportunity at Vassar while reading The Post-American World interest to compare the administration of institutions such as Vassar to leading powers of the “West.” Just like Zakaria generalizes the “rest” of the world in terms of the west, high status power holding figures of Vassar generalize the student population as a whole as well as the cultural and social minority students on campus. Power can be dangerous if misused by the wrong hands.

My overall impression after reading Zakaria was that he was to eager to determine that the future of American will be a positive one solely based on the U.S.’s merits alone. The United States however is a global nation and without compared to other nations there would be no way to classify the U.S. as the top spot on the pyramid of growth, innovation, and wealth (mostly figuratively).  Zakaria states that “we are now returning to a more normal balance”, however he deems this problematic; as if the U.S. is only success with if it consistently holds hegemonic stability of power (Zakaria 65). Why is the rise of the rest problematic? It is the fear that an “other” will bring the U.S. down or that an “other” will rise above. There is a middle ground that the mentality of American exceptionalism inhibits.  Zakaria notions that “strength is weakness,” although my interpretation of this leans more towards strength is fear. In other words, the United States hypocritically fears the growth and strengthening economy of the “rising rest” when ironically the U.S. often complains about the effort it takes to take care of or upkeep those countries with the tools of imperialism. The innovators of the United States want to be the leaders in development but apparently do not want to share or influence other countries with their ideas.  This selfish depiction of leadership defines many of the globalization decisions of the nation; this can compare to some of the administrative decisions Vassar exemplifies.

Like Vassar’s administration, the United States believes as if it can only be successful if it is the strongest or at least perceived as the strongest. The United States creates the standard of living between developing and developed countries and apparently according to Zakaria a standard of poverty. The administration at Vassar creates the standard of applicants and students. I would argue that the students create the academic standard at most schools but many time the administration takes the credit and uses it to their advantage. Vassar’s administration ultimately has the final say when determining what students they choose to admit. The United States ultimately determines which other countries meet that fixed standard of living. The growth of countries is measured on a scale wavering on the basis of the United States.

I think the “American West” should have a social consciousness requirement, as an inborn thought process. It is not necessary for educational institutions to augment a social consciousness within the course requirements because it undermines the fact that people should have this awareness already. The subject itself would be placed on the side and not given fully attention too because it would be something students need to complete rather than innately know or even want to complete.

What to do…

This economic trend we have seen of late is in no way surprising with regard to the data presented in the articles. I think the Occupy Wall Street movement had a good message and could have had a lot of impact if it was not organized via twitter. The growing disparity in wealth is a huge problem in this country, highlighted by the economic recession that started in 2008. This coupled with the recent capitalistic practice of moving production overseas, where production is less expensive and regulation is not as strict. Companies are taking good paying, reliable jobs elseware, leaving people without a job, and with few options. This is not just the plight of the factory worker; whole divisions of large companies have been laid off. Much of the despair in Poughkeepsie was caused when IBM downsized drastically; with less money flowing into the county, there was less leisure money to spend in the city, turning a pedestrian Main Street into what it is today.

The US News article brings up a very good point about higher education. It is more and more expensive, making scholarships more and more competitive, and dashing the dreams of higher education for many kids. Though I am highly appreciative to the 60% of Vassar students who are not on financial aid, making it possible for me to attend this school, I feel this underlines the problem. If so few have so much, what is left for the rest of us?

Income Inequality and Education in the US

The United States is ranked 44th out of 86 countries on income inequality. This is well below the ranks of other major countries in Europe such as Germany and France (Fisher, 2013). Income inequality in the United States has direct effects on areas such as education and public health, causing it to lag behind other major industrialized nations in these areas as well.

Math and Science scores of the US on the international stage fall well below leaders in Hong Kong and Singapore. However, this statistic is rooted in deep regional, racial, and most importantly socioeconomic issues (Zakaria, 2011). There is de facto segregation in the United States by neighborhood due to the disparity in income between social classes. Middle and upper class families often live in suburban neighborhoods quite separately from the poor and ethnically diverse families in urban areas. School and community resources differ by social class, and therefor differ also by race and ethnicity (Berliner, 2005). There is a major gap in resources provided to students in low socioeconomic neighborhoods compared to those with well-funded education systems. These resources range from textbooks to availability and modernity of science labs. In analyzing a 2003 PISA study on subject scores internationally, Berliner notes that if educational opportunities available to white students in our public schools were made available to all our students, the US would have been the 7th high scoring nation in mathematics, 2nd highest scoring nation in reading, and the 4th highest scoring nation in science (Berliner, 2005). Income inequality then creates a cycle where students, often people of color, receive sub par education and are unable to attain high paying jobs and fail to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

The affect of income inequality in education has major ties to health and the lack of affordable health care in the United States. Vision is a simple example. Two different vision screening tests, one among the urban poor in Boston and one among the urban poor in New York have found that 50% of the children tested had some easily correctable vision deficiency. Most of these cases were not followed up on or corrected and the lack of corrected vision has a major effect on educational performance. Another health issue affecting education in low socioeconomic neighborhoods is that of asthma. Families cannot afford to provide regular doctor visits for preventative care of asthma attacks. Since low-income families are more likely to live in urban areas with high air pollution, asthma is more present and students are forced to miss school. Hospital rates for asthma attacks are high in these areas and it puts a strain on the health care system (Berliner, 2005). Missing days of school would have a direct effect on the academic performance of these students. Not to mention, the strain on the health care system takes money away from communities that could be allotted to improving the education of that area.

Zakaria talks a lot about America’s competition with nations increasing in economic power. How would it be possible for the United States to compete for technologic advancements against nations far exceeding our student’s performance in math and science? Education has an enormous capability of maintaining our standings on the world stage by producing efficient and educated workers to succeed and participate in a globalized economy. It will be crucial for the future success of the United States to decrease the soaring rates of income inequality in order to positively impact education and health in the future.


(Edit: The Berliner article if anybody is interested. Some really interesting statistics.)

Education as our saving grace?

In The Post-American World, I felt that Zakaria tried to talk about everything and in so doing, ended up talking about nothing. Obviously, trying to tackle a topic as wide as the current state of America and the world would not be handled well by anyone, but most people would not attempt to. I found myself skimming over frivolous facts that seemed to fill every paragraph most of the time, and I believe Zakaria could have made similar points in a much more succinct fashion.

That being said, Zakaria did raise many interesting issues, despite a complete lack of citation for most of the information he presented. I found his section on the influence of American education on the world, and vice-versa, to be intriguing. As someone interested in the American education system, it was interesting to view our system in a more international lens. Most of my studies focus on the American system and its influence within our country, without thinking much on its influence on the outside world.

Zakaria claims that “higher education is America’s best industry” (209) which is a big claim to make. He cites(or really references without citation) research which says that the United States has 7 or 8 of the world’s top ten universities. This data does not specify whether or not colleges as well, or just universities in a stricter sense. Since Zakaria provides no citations, I remain blissfully unaware, but I’m not sure if it would influence the outcomes at all. Regardless, the statistics are impressive. The United States has realized exactly how to make higher education work, in which case I agree with Zakaria that it remains the one field which we still hold complete dominance of, for now.

However, it is absolutely hilarious that we boast about having the best higher education system in the world, and yet our lower schools are some of the worst. Somehow, we managed to harness the ideals of teaching adults, but forgot those same ideals when creating the lower schools. Since lower schools have been around for much longer, the newer higher education institutions were able to learn from example and implement the methods which truly work: teaching to think, not to memorize. You would think this principle would have been applied to all our schools at this point though, but you would be completely wrong. For some reason, our lower schools are moving completely backwards, and a teaching-to-the-test approach becomes increasingly more dominant. This is terrifying.

Zakaria discusses his views as a student from a non-American school, which were interesting because he praised the American universities so highly, then immediately made fun of Americans for being so bad at math and science in the lower schools. The countries that he then praises for being competent in math and science are mostly the asian countries which fully harness the idea of teaching to a test and only to a test. To them, students doing well on every test is the only thing that matters in their life-long journey of becoming something. Therefore, these countries do incredibly well in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study which is used to decide which countries have the best educational systems.

I had a huge problem with the idea of something called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study being used as an indicator of which schools were best. I might be wrong, but I don’t see any way that this study could even begin to actually understand how “good” a country’s schools are. However, I am not surprised that this study is used for the purposes of worldwide comparison. If you look anywhere in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with math and science, while the humanities and social sciences are being pushed from the public eye. Even looking at Vassar, which would probably be considered an example of America’s top universities by Zakaria, moves towards a more heavily dominated math and science campus, as we are all constantly reminded of with the construction everywhere.

Zakaria claims that America’s educational system is perhaps our saving grace in this day and age because we teach our students to think and not to memorize, but if you actually pay attention to our schools, we are moving closer to the systems which only teach to the test. Zakaria problematizes these systems greatly in comparison with the way American students are able to think freely and voice their own opinions, but the world’s structure as a whole forces even the most liberal of us to engage more with the maths and sciences and less with humanities. The idea that all the world’s schools are compared based off of their TEST SCORES in MATH and SCIENCE blows my mind. If people recognize the power in teaching students to think, which they clearly do when stating America has the top universities, then why why why why why does the world push everyone to outperform each other on tests? I feel that at this point enough people have problematized standardized tests that we should be moving away from them, but every day we seem increasingly more caught up in their ties.


Too Shallow

In The Post American World, Fareed Zakaria suggests that the coming century will mark the decentralization of American hegemony, in turn giving way to “the rise of the rest.” While I agree with this basic premis, the ways in which Zakaria substantiates his claims are problematic.
As noted by Clyfford, Zakaria bases much of his analysis on prediction and fails to take into account the potential for conflict and crisis to shake assumed trajectories. While he notes growth in Latin America and Africa, Zakaria’s choice to focus on India and China demonstrates a limited perspective of growth. Both India and China have been central to the global economy for centuries, as centers of trade during the era of colonialization and as industrial powers within their own right. Both countries are also representative of internationally minded capitalist structures with centralized agencies of control. Zakaria limits the extent of his thesis by failing to adequately adress the myriad of emerging markets throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and by avoiding a true discussion of alternate market systems within and parrallel to inter/transnational capitalism.
This past summer, I interned for The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, as a member of their Program and Development Division. My main job was to go through the economic news of the days, tracking MNC interests in emerging markets such as the East African Community, Columbia and Indonesia. The importance of non-state actors within development practices, as noted by Zakaria, quickly became evident. The importance of investment, both private and corporate, in shifting the social landscape of rural and underdeveloped spaces is immense. Access to internet, running water, and education are more often than not determined by outside actors, as oppossed to local or governemental initiatives. Cites of power are thus found largely outside of communities, as noted by Zakaria in his discussion of China in Africa.
This does not need to hold true for too long, though. As educational infrastructure develops, so does entepeneurship and enterprise. Though often understandings are faciliated by hegemonic, namely American, knowledge, over time, the development that has occurred under the behest of capital interest will give way to middle classes with increased agency. Changing investment laws and international organizations, such as trading blocs, are also giving rise to the true elites. Wheras the post-colonial order supports a pseudo elite class, “the rise of the rest” has also brought with it the rise of, and increasing potential for, domestic ownership and control over means of production. This means different things for rural versus cosmopolitan spaces. Over time, local, or at least decentralized, sites of power will continue to expand.
In focusing on soft facts and dominant structures , Zakaria sells himself short. He glosses over too much, perhaps to be digestable and appeal to a broader audience, but in doing so he does not fully realize the potential of his claim. Given recent trends in investment and ample discourse on emerging markets and the implications for both inter/transnational and domestic trade and development, Zakaria could have easily been more radical in his claims. Been more critical in his exploration of power. I would have liked to hear more about the impact of technology and access to resources in the Post-American World and how American soft power will intersect a new world order. While China and India are incredibly important actors within the Post-American World, why not include a chapter on Nigeria or Brazil to better balance the geography of power and take into account regional growth concerns? I would have liked to hear more about the periphery instead of the core.

Self-Healing from Imperialism

What happens when two of the world’s most rapidly developing and most populated nations rework capitalism so that it fits with their political and cultural identities? Zakaria makes the case that this is happening in China (“The Dragon”) and India (“The Cow”). Throughout the text, I became uncomfortable as I pondered the tactics that China and India are using to become important world players in the political and economic scenes. Both nations have catapulted themselves from poor, rural nations to industrialized, urbanized ones. They have done so by incorporating many of the same tactics as Western imperialists. China has turned to African nations for trade and resources and India is trying to develop nuclear power. Have India and China gone from bullied to bully? Have they sold out?

I don’t want to make the claim that these countries have “sold out” and have become as imposing as Western nations have in the past. Rather, I want to postulate that these actions could be seen as a way for China and India to self-heal from the torment of imperialism and humiliation of a low global status. In this theory, the final step in a nation’s break from being colonized and humiliated is to become the colonizers and those that inflict the humiliation.

While China is not literally colonizing Africa as had England, its heavy presence in Africa can be described above all as “capitalist.” It has no qualms over selling platinum and iron ore to Zimbabwe’s President, Mugabe, “which he uses to intimidate, arrest, and kill domestic opposition” (Zakaria 131). In this example and in others listed in chapter four, China comes across as a shrewd, dollar-first capitalist nation that scours the globe for markets and resources—just like imperialist governments in the past. For a Communist nation, I find this to be ironic and hypocritical. How can China show pride in its rising influence when its dealings with Africa echo former Western involvement? As postulated previously, I think that psychologically—that is, if the term “psychologically” can apply to an entire nation’s consciousness—China may need to wield this influence in order to aid its self-esteem that was damaged from years of loss of status under Mao. By being a major economic presence in Africa, China builds up its confidence by dealing with impoverished nations with often corrupt officials (according to Zakaria).

Similarly, India’s demand for its nuclear capabilities to be categorized with the other powers instead of being considered “illegal” seems to be motivated by pride instead of pragmatism. Britain and China are amongst the 5 nations that are “allowed” to possess nuclear technology. If its nuclear plants had to be maintained by International Atomic Energy Agency, this would be a significant humiliation for India. In this theory I have asserted, India cannot “psychologically” see itself below Britain, or else it might interfere with India’s self-healing process as a nation trying to recover from centuries-long imperialism.

This is not to condemn China and India’s actions. By far, America has acted much more atrocious while pursuing its endeavors as a modern superpower.


On another note, here is an interesting article that can help us understand the character of Zakaria:

Zakaria and Huntington

Like some of my classmates, I found The Post-American World to be rife with oversimplifications and hollow reasoning, especially for a book with such grand ambition. Fareed Zakaria’s populist stylistic and writing choices were definitely a lot more detectable, almost distracting, after having spent the semester reading mostly academic texts. Despite these deficiencies I actually think that Zakaria presents his argument effectively, and that the general audience that his book is targeting will probably be in agreement with his claims—that any threats to U.S. global hegemony are overstated, American power remains strong, but we must be able to cooperate with rising powers like China and India, and so on.

Above all, I’m most interested in exploring the relationship between Zakaria and his supposed mentor, Samuel Huntington. Notably, The Post-American World adopts the same “West versus the Rest” framework that Huntington had used for dissecting world power, and there are plenty of other echoes of “Uncle Sam” (my new moniker) in Zakaria’s work. Considering that Zakaria was a student of Huntington’s at Harvard, I found this quote from Chapter 5 particularly telling:

“When I went to college in the United States, I encountered a different world. While the American system is too lax on rigor and memorization—whether in math or poetry—it is much better at developing the critical faculties of the mind, which is what you need to succeed in life. Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think.” (2008:193)

This quote became even more fascinating upon my discovery of Zakaria’s sentimental eulogy in Foreign Policy magazine after Huntington’s death. In this piece, Zakaria pays homage to one of the American educators who helped him develop these critical faculties and “teach him to think.” Some nuggets of wisdom from Uncle Sam include:

“If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single, or what are the couple, of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.

“…Well you know, Fareed, my view has always been that you put your best work out, you let people attack you, and then you move on. You can spend your whole life getting caught up in letters to the editor, and ‘I didn’t say this and I didn’t say that,’ but it’s pointless. The best thing you can do is write the next book which will cause disagreements among people.”

Additionally, Zakaria notes in his tribute how Huntington was a man of principle; he evidently demonstrated this in one case when he was asked, as the chair of the Olin Institute, to encourage more minority students to apply to the group’s fellowships. Huntington’s response? “You know, I really can’t go along with that. I feel very awkward sending special invitations to people based on their descriptive qualities, so you’ll have to tell the dean I won’t do it.”

Indeed, the same man who carved out a world order based on certain civilizations’ ascribed capabilities and limits—and then “invited” those inferior cultures to either join the West or fail—apparently feels uncomfortable making decisions based on individual’s “descriptive qualities.”

Oh, Uncle Sam. It’s seems as though the education that Zakaria attained was less “learning how to think,” and more of an exercise in conforming to the ideology of American exceptionalism. And as an immigrant from India, Zakaria’s ascent to the elite circles of American life have likely been contingent upon his embrace of these hegemonic principles–which in fact do more damage to the Global South and concentrate American power. Is this what “human rights imperialism” looks like?

“When you assume….you make and ASS out of U and ME”

Coming into Vassar as a freshman I had no idea what concepts like heteornormativity, cultural appropriation, white privilege, and gender binary meant, as a suburban Ohio girl my school did not prepare me for anything close to what Vassar curriculum is like and I was thrown head first into real world issues that I had never dealt with before. If at any point they were brought up in class or in conversation my Vassar peers seemed to mutually understand and have the skills to discuss and dissect them, I however was flying blind. Not wanting to seem less informed or less intelligent I went along with the discussion or simply agreed or disagreed with the people making a point. It was obviously my own fault for not asking for a definition or explanation but in the bigger picture of things I felt like there was an assumption made that myself being a Vassar student had an basic understanding of certain concepts and definitions which I actually had no clue about.

As Vassar Students I think it is easy for us to assume that any given Vassar student has the same basic knowledge of social issues and awareness that most students do. And if anyone else was like me as a freshman it may seem like there is a level of awareness that in reality is unbalanced. And if that imbalance is left alone it grows larger and larger as the informed group becomes more informed and the uninformed, confused, and unaware group either are not confronted with the issues or remain silent. (There are students no doubt who actively work towards informing themselves and are not afraid of asking about concepts they don’t know but I don’t want to assume everyone is a certain way) By assuming that there is a level of knowledge are we simply widening the gap between the informed and uniformed?

As a senior I have taken my fair share of classes and had numerous discussions and feel that I am now more deeply informed about such issues and concepts and can hold my ground in a discussion but am I making the same assumptions about others that was made about me as a freshman. Do I assume that everyone coming into Vassar has some sort of knowledge and awareness of social issues? My answer is generally yes, I think that I do assume people have the level of knowledge but I acknowledge that getting to a particular level of awareness takes time and experience and for some it really is difficult to get there or even begin thinking about it. So how do we as a student body and administration work to make students more social aware.

I don’t believe the answer lies in an academic requirement but in more of a educational requirement. Lecturing people about social issues, race, gender, class, etc is not the answer but somehow working with student at a more individual level could be beneficial. I think Anna mentioned in class the idea of a Freshman orientation required activity be a social issues awareness workshop, and while that might be difficult to implement in the beginning having a basis for which to begin discussing these issues would be tremendously helpful. Even if it didn’t stick with or resonate with everyone there would be some basic level of knowledge given to all, at least I would have appreciated such education as a freshmen going into Vassar classes. We are a long way from a solution but assuming people have the knowledge to communicate and engage in a Vassar situation is not the way to begin conversations either.

Thinking about Horowitz’s “Constituting Consciousness”

I wrote this post as one that would be direct conversation with Maya’s recent blog post “Constituting Consciousness” She brings up a lot of really interesting ideas that I think I have some experience to reply to and even ponder along with her.

Last year I joined the VSA Academics Committee for the sole purpose of working on making Social Consciousness more fully realized in academic life.  I also joined various campus groups and efforts to do a similar thing because I realized that I would have to go about pushing this project of socialization in a multi-faceted way.

A big issue for awhile was what was the main focus of Social Consciousness. Which issues would you privilege? There are basic tenets of understanding privilege and oppression that could be used to engage in discussion over racism, sexism, classism etc. It just would have depended on the professor and the topics they were teaching. At the end of the day we wanted people even if they weren’t in the humanities to imagine and to be thinking about how their major’s focus could be engaging with topics of social consciousness.. I think our frame of mind at the time hoped that the process of coming up with more critically aware curriculum would be something that after some convincing faculty might actually see as a challenge worth engaging with.

In my work last year we did actually reach out to Res Life which responded by creating the program it did for Freshman Orientation with the theme “S.O.S.” or Self Others and Society.  It was a great move in the right direction. Still, I was put a back on some occasions by people going through House team training with a lot of their own baggage about privilege. Baggage isn’t bad but if you’re not opening it or confronting it weighs on you and it becomes glaringly obvious when Freshmen come to you with questions about issues of identity and you are not at a place to help them because you have not done the work to check your own privilege in a multitude of ways. We all have some forms of baggage the the intent is to continue to work on it through continual processes of self reflection and inquiry.

I do agree that there should be more attempt to diversify fellow groups… Maybe Res Life did try and there were just too many White students for that to be viable? We might just need to admit more students of color?  Still, diversification can come at a deep emotional toll to a student not in a dominant racial, class etc. group, especially when cultural differences and a lot of awkward conversations leave them feeling alienated in a “diverse” fellow group. What does this diversity mean if there is no support or supplementing that exchange? Should a student fellow who , might I add is a freshly minted 2nd year, be the one trying to force this cohesion?  I owe it to the work that students before me did that I could say I was apart of the Transitions program( a pre-orientation first year program for 1st generation or low income students) which had clearer points of reference for counsel if I ever needed it. Still more needs to be done.

I am leery of students putting into praxis their learnings of social consciousness with Poughkeepsie as the immediate subject of this. Show it by engaging in campus dialogue, show it by not being dismissive of critiques and call outs. Show it by governing justly and so on.

I am really happy that people are still talking about issue at all. So much gets forgotten in the summer between academic years. I hope that the institution can continue to work to serve students of all backgrounds in increasingly creative and fruitful ways.