The New Culture of Education Privatization: Reflections on the American Graduation Ceremony

Graduation

Yes, privatization of education affects our chances of getting or not getting high-quality education. Yes, it contributes to social inequality and destroys the myth of education as equalizer of the society. Yes, the rules of the game are not fair: if you are from a wealthy family – you are in; if you are not, then, well, you are probably out…somewhere out there doing blue  collar jobs, struggling to pay for the utilities and struggling to make a living. What a game. However, privatization and commercialization of public education go far beyond the concerns  “about” or “of” the quality of education. They create a new culture, shape our values and affect our behavior.

In a couple of months I will be graduating from an American university, proudly holding my M.A. degree. Since I received my bachelor’s degree in Russia, I had no idea what to expect from the preparations leading up to the graduation event. First, I received a promotional brochure, advertising graduation packages (caps and gowns, diploma frames, certificates, etc.). The packages varied from $160 up to $500 and even higher with an option of purchasing a golden ring with a university logo and my name on it. “Hmm…what a robbery!”, I thought. I shared the prices with my sister who works for the university in Kyrgyzstan. She was surprised and explained that, in their case, the university buys caps and gowns and rents them for free to students during the graduation. “Lucky you,” I said, “commercialization has not yet overtaken Central Asian universities.”

A couple of days after the conversation with my sister, I attended the graduation fair itself. Calling it a very ‘unusual’ life experience is an understatement – it was a real show! I entered a room with about 50-60 students who were waiting in line. Some were openly mad, complaining about a huge line; others were happy, perhaps, thinking about upcoming graduation. Some students came with their parents; others were accompanied by friends. After five minutes of waiting, an enthusiastic lady came trying to convince us to “give back to university” by pressuring all of us to donate. I looked at people around me to see their reactions: many were embarrassed, some donated right away, only a few openly said that they are not going to “buy it.” I was thinking, well… some students have already paid thousands of dollars for their tuition and did not have a chance to earn money yet… Have  they not paid enough to the university, so far? Others have struggled to afford education by taking out many loans… Wouldn’t it make sense to repay their loans first? More importantly, shouldn’t donations be a matter of a personal will rather than a result of peer pressure and public shame?

The show did not stop there. As the line moved up, we were approached by more enthusiastic students who seemed to pop up every 10 minutes asking for a donation. And, as we were moving along, other people approached us advertising graduation packages – frames…then, rings…then more “donations”…then, personal announcements and envelopes…then, more “donations” again. From time to time, “donation” agents were actively rewarding those who donated and shaming those who did not. When one student openly protested the pressure to donate, the agents’ response was loud and clear: “If you are not going to donate now, you will be bombarded with tons of emails asking for donations later. It is a shame not to give back.”

The graduation fair was like a pure clash of socialism, communism, and capitalism – all in a university setting. Socialism, because we had to wait in a line (I stayed for an hour); communism, since we were expected to donate collectively; and capitalism…I guess, it is not hard to guess why capitalism.

At one moment, I asked myself whether I am at a UNIVERSITY or in a supermarket, where merchants are constantly trying to sell stuff and beggars are asking for money. Perhaps, if one is raised in the context of capitalism, such a graduation fair would seem normal and natural. And, indeed, it is becoming increasingly natural to view people as “walking dollars,” to ask students for donations before their graduation, and to constantly advertise to students in order to sell more “stuff.” I believe the impact of commercialization of education on the broader culture is strikingly disturbing, but has anything been done to assess its impact?

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