Higher Ed as Cheerios

March 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How embarrassing. The University of North Georgia used this stock photo for the cover of their course catalogue. 

Two White men in suit, white shirt, and tie crossing the finish line triumphantly well ahead of a White woman (dressed more casually). Staggering in last place is a Black man (no suit jacket).

What were they thinking, the people who chose this photo? More accurately, what were they seeing, or still more accurately, what were they not seeing? One of the privileges of being in the dominant group is that you don’t have to worry about how members of your group are portrayed. You don’t even have to notice it. You don’t even have to notice that people like you are in fact dominant. You’re the default setting.

Those in the minority do not have this luxury of cluelessness. When one of “theirs” is portrayed, they notice.

But what strikes me most about the choice of this photo is not that the catalogue-makers did not notice categories of race and gender. It’s the basic assumption about what a university is and what education is. The view of education underlying the clueless cover is much different from that of the people who actually create and teach the courses described inside that catalogue.  Surely you are familiar with these course descriptions, all stamped out from the same template – the questions a course will raise, the ideas and topics it will probe.  For example.

SOCI 3510 - Sociology of Religion
This course examines religious theory and comparative religions, investigates contemporary American religions, and explores personal religiosities with sociological insight and imagination. Course readings and fieldwork underscore religion’s role as a pivotal institution that influences and shapes societal discourse

(I have resisted the temptation to use SOCI 2100 Constructions of Difference, (“focusing on race, class, gender and sexuality”), a course the catalogue makers surely had not taken.)

Even the courses in business rest on similar assumptions.

BUSA 2108 - Business Communication
A management-oriented course emphasizing theories and channels on communication, semantic problems, and other barriers to effective communication with emphasis on both oral and written communications.

The cover photo promotes a much different perspective on education. The cover reminds me of magazine ads for children’s food. These would typically show an exuberantly cheerful child doing something incredibly active, while off to the side, mom smiled in warm satisfaction, the food she had given her child having endowed him with energy for success. “Go Power,” as Cheerios used to say.

What the University of North Georgia says it is really offering is not learning or ideas. It’s Go Power. Those courses in the catalogue are power-packed Cheerios that will allow you to triumph over other people and to come in first in the corporate Hunger Games.

This utilitarian view of education is so widespread and unquestioned as to go unnoticed, more so than rankings of race and gender. But those of us in the minority – the people who write the course descriptions, the people who in our caps and gowns at the end of the year think about medieval scholars and the students who followed them just to hear what they had to say – we notice.

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