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S. Shankar / Person-Oriented vs Thing-Oriented Education: Why Now in the Midst of the Twin Crises of COVID-19 and the Racial Justice Uprisings We Need the Arts and Humanities More than Ever

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” –Martin Luther King

In a speech at Riverside Church in April 1967, Martin Luther King warned us about thing-oriented thinking. King was concerned about things being exalted over people and, reciprocally, people being converted into things. Not only can thing-oriented thinking not solve the problems of racism, extreme materialism and militarism, in King’s opinion, it in fact contributes to them, makes them flourish. It is worth thinking today, as simultaneously a pandemic and an uprising for racial justice rage, about higher education in the light of King’s words.

Speech at Riverside Church, New York, 1967

Over the last century and across the globe, the thinking King warned us about has given us such “things” as the atomic bomb, emerging markets, and forced sterilizations. Thing-oriented thinking flattens the myriad challenges and mysteries of human life, indeed of all life on earth. It replaces the fluid dynamism of life with the passive inertia of things. Why? Because passive and inert things can be more easily manipulated. They can be ordered, reordered (forcibly sterilized bodies), moved, put in boxes, measured and counted (consumers in emerging markets), made into targets (residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), sliced to manageable size. Things don’t have to be listened to.

Thing-oriented thinking fosters the reductive notion that the world is a collection of problems meant to be confronted by technical and technological solutions. (Frankenstein anybody?) It is the naïve and dangerous notion that the world is an ever proliferating collection of wildly diverse nails for which we need to invent ever more ingenious hammers.

One might think higher education would be the very antithesis of thing-oriented thinking. If only. Thing-oriented thinking, alas, is alive and well within the university in the form of technocratic education or education of, for, and by technocrats. The transformation of higher education into technocratic education, into thing-oriented education, into a machine for the invention of hammers has been well underway for quite a while. Its signs are well known: the exaltation in prestige as well as resources of STEM over other disciplines, of “policy” over “pure” knowledge fields, of externally funded research for the market and the military over the instruction of students and citizens, of problems and solutions over context and complexity.

Thing-oriented education grows ever more dominant within the university. So much so that it has now turned the university itself into a thing, into a nail that needs to be hammered into place. To order and reorder the university, to hammer it into shape, thing-oriented thinking has exalted the administrative class within the university over the faculty and students. A bloated administrative class—far removed from core instructional and research functions and impatient with the “messiness” of faculty and student governance—has become the hammer that purports to solve the problem of a university not sufficiently bent to the will of, in King’s words, “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights.”

I offer my home institution as an example. Thing-oriented education is as alive and well at the University of Hawai`i at ​Mānoa (UHM) as anywhere else. The spirit of thing-oriented education is clear in the additional title given to the President of the university: CEO of UHM, the flagship campus. CEO is a corporate-world title, a title drawn from the world of profit motives and property rights. The use of the title has been growing within public higher education. What does it signal with regard to the shift in culture within the not-for-profit enterprise of public higher education? A question worth asking.

At UHM as elsewhere, an ever growing administrative class engages in the doctrinaire pursuit of a narrow technocratic idea of education. For years now, a variety of reorganization efforts have helped to consolidate power in the central administration. Simultaneously, faculty and student governance has been eroded. Recently the faculty senate resoundingly rejected a plan for merging three (largely arts and humanities) colleges, because this merger failed to grant the newly created college the resources and governance structures necessary for its success. Despite overwhelming and sustained opposition from faculty during a multi-year “consultation” process, the administration went ahead with the merger anyway. The technocrats, you see, always know best.

What is going on at UHM has been repeated elsewhere. The story is well known and has been told many times in different ways. For a recent cogent (and comic) review see Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant episode of Patriot Act.

The shift to thing-oriented education has been underway for a long while, but the COVID-19 epidemic promises to intensify the process. Who can argue that a pandemic is not a problem in need of a solution? It is more challenging now than ever to draw a sharp distinction between thing-oriented and person-oriented education. And, yet, draw that distinction we must.

COVID-19 will give administrators—yes, there are brave and inspiring exceptions to such administrators—cover to accelerate the turn to technocratic thing-oriented education. The dangers of such an acceleration are real and should not be underestimated. If the pandemic is one current crisis, the other is police brutality and racial injustice. The lessons of the pandemic should be balanced against those of the racial justice uprisings, which are quite simply acts of resistance to the conversion of people into things to be ordered, reordered, disciplined, kept in place, even expunged via chokeholds. We should fear, as King did in the midst of another era of uprisings, sliding headlong into a thing-oriented society. Against such a society a person-oriented education is the first and last bulwark.

A person-oriented education is one that recognizes the intrinsic value of persons over things. Such an education should, for a start, acknowledge seriously the worth of the humanities and the arts—for a start, because it is not as if these disciplines are immune to thing-oriented thinking. Investing in these disciplines will surely not be enough to counter the thinking King feared. But it should be clear by now that not investing in them is guaranteed to speed us into a generalized condition of thing-ness. These are the disciplines in which person-oriented thinking has the greatest potential to thrive. To put the matter concisely: these disciplines may not be sufficient for the creation of a person-oriented society but they are necessary.

Which, come to think of it, may be why university administrations are busy gutting them to please their thing-oriented masters.