Statistics of Education: Portrayal of Education during the Occupy Movement

Statistics of Education: Portrayal of Education during the Occupy Movement



The discourse on education has gained prominence in recent years through a variety of efforts to reduce illiteracy and facilitate economic development. There also seems to be a negative connotation of higher education due to the financial difficulties that result from it. The use of language, based on different ideological systems, create various modes of dialogue that contribute towards reproducing and transforming how our society portrays education. This creates diverse power relations that seem to be very prevalent in the midst of our country’s unemployment status, specifically throughout the discourse surrounding the Occupy Movement.

In 2007, the United States economy was well on its way to a historical down turn and was quickly heading to reach record highs in individual states and national unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression. Corporate America quickly began seeking ways to control loses. In the beginning, companies began restructuring benefit packages, freezing pay, and had ceased hiring. As financial analysts continued to report that the future would continue to look bleak for several more years to come, many employers had no other option than to begin reducing their workforce. This comes at a time when USA Today is reporting that there are a record number of young adults (18 to 24), about 40% of high school graduates, enrolling in colleges and universities nationwide (USA Today, Oct.-2009). In September of 2011, many American college students enduring extreme economic woes, mounting educational debt, and no hope of finding gainful employment even after obtaining a college degree, organized and join the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’. During this period we began seeing the uses of language based on different ideological systems, creating various modes of dialogue that contribute towards reproducing and transforming how our society is now portraying education. This has led to interesting and diverse power relation that is proving to be very prevalent in the midst of our country’s unemployment status, specifically in and throughout the discourse surrounding the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

USA Today, being the widest circulated print newspaper in the United States, distributed in all fifty states, is an easily accessible source. Since it is known for condensing new stories down to an easy-to-read and easy-to-comprehend format, the content material is able to be explored by a broad audience. Due to the fact that USA Today is a very dominant, widespread, and easily accessible source, this particular set of texts is ideal for examining how education is being represented its consumers. The specific corpus that was used within our research was derived from an explicit time-frame, ranging from when the Occupy Movement originally started (September, 2011) to texts from present-time (April, 2011). The search parameters that were used were founded on the basis of any relevance to the Occupy Movement and education in general. To be more specific, any dialogue that had any relevance to education in any facet, such as college, students, campuses, job opportunities, employment, unemployment, and figures of finances was included in our discourse analysis. With these parameters, we collected a sample of 120+ articles that would be the basis of our study. With a unique “College” feature of USA Today texts, we were able to direct our focus explicitly to how linguistics regarding education, within the context of the Occupy Movement, is directed towards college students and from college students.


With an overarching initial ideological belief system about education, we consciously and sensibly utilized various methodologies that helped us to understand how education is made to mean through critical discourse analysis. We chose specific lexical words that were deductively selected and sought after throughout the complete corpus of texts, including college, student, job, and education. By focusing on the linguistic features of the text, we were capable of applying microanalysis as a method for research. (Fairclough) Using a program called KWIC we were able to see the words’ frequency, as well as the collocation of it within the sample frame of over 120 articles, and we were then able to analyze the patterns of use. (Sinclair) The KWIC program’s function was to determine if there were any patterns being brought out by the collocation of certain words, that we deemed to be meaningful within the context of our study, such as education, college, job, and student.  “A simple concordance search can often provide us with a general idea of how a character [or word] is presented in a story, or what recurrent actions or features are associated with a particular character [or word]” (Adolphs, 2006).  From the KWIC program, we used coding to distinguish five Key Codes, or meaningful words, for our analysis and our group coded all the texts in our corpus for all examples of the codes. Semantic reversal was used to give meaning to the collocated words in the concordance lines and was helpful because “instead of expecting to understand a segment of text by accumulating the meanings of each successful meaning unit…a number of units taken together [was used to] create meaning, and this meaning takes precedence over the ‘dictionary meanings’ of whatever words are chosen” (Sinclair, 1998). Drawn from the data that KWIC derived, the word “college,” for example, was often used in the perspective of students, as active participants in the movement, which was a noticeable and re-occurring configuration that supported the initial postulation that USA Today: College had a definite “speaker.” Not only did we find that college students were given a strong voice within our corpus, but we were also able to identify a specific research topic, and specific audience. ) In order to better understand how this power relation is taking place it is important to look at what is being said, who is saying it, and why are they saying it. The triangle of communication looked like this: College students and college graduates, as speakers, encompass a large number of the protestors of the Occupy Movement, speaking on the topic of education, spoken to those who are interested in college. (Cook Through the various methods of analyzing discourse it is possible to discover answers related to each of these questions; “Discourse analysis is the study of text through careful, close reading that moves between text and context to examine the content, organization and function of discourse” (Bauer & Gaskell, 2000). This insight allowed us to interpret what the students themselves had to say about education, within the Occupy Movement.

Since discourse is constitutive and socially shaped, we were able to critique the traditional role of education and how it is made to mean within our society and make visible opaque aspects by using rational thinking to question the arguments and prevailing ideas. (Van Dijk) Inductive reasoning allowed us to begin with the social phenomenon of education and use that to explain our texts. Deductive reasoning allowed us to start with the social theories of education and move towards our explanations. Retroductive reasoning allowed us to move between these two methods and prove, strengthen, and advance our findings. Opposed to an open-choice model, which is the “normal” way of seeing and describing language, we adopted Sinclair’s five categories of co-selection and discovered that there was a non-random nature of language taking place. We then explored the frequencies within the text and noticed interesting patterns taking place that suggested different meanings of education were taking place. (Adolphs) The idiom principal allowed us to initially recognize and analyze the how the users of our sample frame naturally selected the content from a set of pre-constructed phrases and idioms. (Sinclair) Through these specific methodologies we, as decoders, documented re-occurring patterns and encoded how the meaning of education was made to be, within the framework of the Occupy Movement.

Analysis: Higher Education and Future Success

Education is mostly used in conjunction to higher education or college and with adjectives such as “advanced” or “higher.”  This represents a value placed on higher education within the discourse of the Occupy Movement.  Since the Occupy Movement is focused on equality, an emphasis on higher education is ideal. The reference has meaning as to point out the fact that higher education is a great equalizer.  Rich and Poor alike are afforded the opportunity to go to college.  Both the rich and the poor can roam the halls of the universities in search of greater knowledge.  The opinion article titled “Santorum’s war on higher ed is dangerous” by David Alpert alludes to the egalitarianism of higher education. In it he maintains, “Education is quite simply the key to unlocking the social mobility that comprises the American Dream. This great nation was founded in part on the notion that all citizens are entitled to a certain equality of opportunity” (Alpert, 2012). When Alpert states “all citizens,” he is recognizing the fact that everyone regardless of race, gender, religion financial status should be entitled to the opportunity for education (Alpert, 2012).  That is the substance of the Occupy Movement, the opportunity for equality regardless of race, gender, religion or financial status.

These findings were of particular interest because higher education has been portrayed as a road to a wealthy future, but what we were finding was a pattern of education as a contributing factor towards much of the country’s financial inequality. With this knowledge, we were discovered a new and interesting meaning that “college” takes on based on how it is used, since meaning is contingent on shared cultural knowledge.

Since we understand that it can be problematic to that read off of ideological significance of discourse on the basis of textual analysis alone, we took the knowledge from the patterns resultant from micro analysis, and sought to further enrich our findings through critical analysis. (Wodak) Since discourse is fundamentally interactive, we then broadened our lens by creating specific codes of pattern that served to investigate statements made about education.

Through operation of a program called Dedoose, we were able to take our initial found pattern of college students as social actors a step further by breaking down our coding into different categories. We chose to focus on students as social actors within the texts once again, but also take it a step further by coding the distinction between discourse of education as a means for financial advancement and education as a means for financial deterioration.

The lemma “student” co-occurred with “wealth” a total of 13 times and with “poor” 36 times. The emerging and prevalent pattern of the co-occurrence of “student” and “poor” demonstrates that in the context of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, students represented college as being a means to debt, rather than a means to wealth. Any mention of financial disparity, debt, loans, or financial deprivation was accounted for a total of 90 times within the sample frame.

In the following examples from USA Today, college students are marginalized through various theoretical frameworks. Often the meaning of a clause or phrase is derived from the sum of its lexical units. John Sinclair explains in his book Contrastive Lexical Semantics “Whenever the meaning arises predominantly from textual environment rather than the item choice, it is considered to be an instance of semantic reversal” (Sinclair, 1998).

“Occupy’s membership is a coat of many colors. It includes the foreclosed, the uninsured and the homeless, college students with poor job prospects and college graduates with no way to pay off their student loans.”

Youngsters are complaining about the unemployment rate among 20-to-24-year olds being more than 15 percent. According to a 2009 survey by entry-level job-search site, 80 percent of graduates have moved back home.”

“…they went to high school, they got their college degrees and they feel betrayed that the promised ladder of social mobility was ripped from their hands.”

“The Occupy Wall Street protest is the latest face of discontent with the economy. Given the relatively unorganized nature of the movement, it’s somewhat difficult to understand precisely what the gripe of its members is.”

When applying the semantic reversal process to the examples it becomes clear on how the author wants us to view the student. Describing college students as “complaining youngsters” positions the reader as someone who is older and more mature thus placing the students as the other or the out group, he then cements this notion by stating that the majority “80% of graduates end up moving back home” typically under the care of a parent.  Students are seen as the other or out group when the author places the student in a group that includes “homeless, unemployed and uninsured”. When we apply cultural knowledge of these groups’ to the college students they then take on the same values as the other participants of the out group. In each of the excerpts above students have either been valued as victims or immature and thus their message is seen to be less valuable. The message is quite different when coming from the academic community to potential students; Marshall Vest, director of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona explains that “Investment in education is essential to reversing the income gap.”

However, some economists are predicting that new job growth will continue to be hampered by emerging economies such as China and India and that U.S. companies will be creating more jobs in these markets rather than at home. This information continues to discourage many young adults coming out of high school to seek higher education. Through the process of semantic reversal we can now see the shift in attitudes towards Higher education. In the following excerpts we look at what student protesters are saying.

USA Today: College staffer, Kendall Bitonte’s article on paying off college debts transitions nicely to the next pattern encountered.  The opportunity to go to college is not without its costs.  This article focuses on secondary education with respect to the costs of attendance.  Bitonte alludes to the statistic that the “college student’s proactive borrowing trend coincides with decreased funding from the federal government for secondary education. In this way, students can sign larger tuition checks only after they have more aggressively searched for financial assistance seeking help from banks and the privately operated Sallie Mae” (Bitonte, 2012).

Analysis: Education and Financial Cost

Through critical discourse analysis, this study allowed us to see a contradiction to how education is typically portrayed, proven through language and society (Van Dijk). To be more specific, education is traditionally made to mean as a means for financial improvement and opportunity, but through the actual participants of education, i.e. students, within a socially constructed movement, i.e. the Occupy Wall Street Movement, through a sample of texts, i.e. USA Today: College, we are able to see an emergence of an interesting new power dynamic. Within the context of this movement, the 99% is acquiring a change to speak up against the 1% in regards to the lack of progression in the labor industry. The mere fact that college students inhabit a large number of the participants within the movement enables us to recognize that college students are struggling in the job market. After analyzing the sample frame, we are able to move beyond individualized levels of understanding and provide detailed documentation of the correlation between college students and financial inequalities.

Another pattern is that higher education was often portrayed with financial cost or status.  An achievement of relative wealth, or lack of, coincided with the negative associations with higher education.  For example, an article posted at USA Today: College states just that, “Salaries are decreasing and college costs — along with living and medical expenses — are rising at an annual rate of 5%” (Vissa, 2012).  If the costs to attend college are rising so much that students have to borrow more money, the salaries received with a diploma in hand must make it worth your while.  However, that is shown to not be the case.

An additional editorial pronounces that “Along with concerns for their future financial solvency, students consider education costs a different sort of burden… students believe a college education is less affordable” (Bitonte, 2012).  In a time of recession, where vast numbers of the working population are unemployed, there appears to be a changing of the guard with respect to higher education.  It wasn’t that long ago when the idea of a college education was connected with a step up in the employment ladder.  Now, too many highly educated people are flooding the work force trying to procure high paying jobs, but with a relative lack of experience gives, it gives the impression that it is hurting their chances for gainful employment.

“The Occupy Wall Street movement has found support on college campuses across the country. Many of these students feel that the crushing rise in student loan debt and a weak job market makes the promise of success offered from their degree worthless.”

In nearly all of the cases student protesters have voiced their concern about how the value of a college education has been or continue to be more of a burden than as a path to a better future. This message is being voiced throughout not only this country but other parts of the world as well. This is giving validation to young student’s belief that the amount of time and energy and cost that it takes to complete even a four year degree may in the end all be just a waste and can be enough to sway a decision about continuing on to college after high school.


After qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing our collaborative corpus, we were able to move beyond individualized levels of understanding and provide detailed documentation of the correlation between college students and financial inequalities. It is during this period that we began seeing the uses of language based on different ideological systems creating various modes of dialogue that contribute towards reproducing and transforming how our society is now portraying education. Not only in the context of the Occupy Movement, but in the context of our daily lives. The notion that if you do well in school and you go to college and get a degree you will do well in life is no longer a motivator for pursuing the American Dream. We are able to validate the fact that education is proving to be a roadway to the worsening of our financial situations, rather than the betterment of it. Clearly, the educational system within American Imperialism is flawed and through this analysis, we have shown it to be a problem-oriented interdisciplinary research topic. Many young adults are increasingly becoming apathetic toward America and its promise. The power relations in favor of the 1% show a needed cultural change in our society in order to restore education to be a means for what it is actually intended to be, a means for or a roadway towards opportunity and financial success. A search of concordance lines and collocation tables led us to another frequent relationship concerning education and expected income earnings. We had been able to draw out the costs of education and its comparative triviality on the path to achieving qualified wealth. Within the realm of the Occupy Movement education is portrayed as having its costs outweigh the benefits within our current economy. If this trend continues, it will be more difficult to persuade high school graduates that it is important to pursue a college degree. If we begin to see a sharp drop in college enrolment we will know then that the ideology behind education has made a shift. We could then begin to see colleges and universities closing down. This would be catastrophic in that this would only continue creating an even larger gap in income levels. And so the rich will continue to get richer and the poor get poorer.


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