Reproducing “education” within the occupy movement: How mainstream media reproduce and reflect the changing and contradictory nature of “education” in current society
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 along with national unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression. Corporate America quickly began seeking ways to control this situation. In the beginning companies began restructuring benefit packages, freezing pay, and limiting 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. At the same time, a record number of young adults (18 to 24), about 40% of high school graduates, were enrolling in colleges and universities nationwide (USA Today, 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 joined the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’. During this period of time, we began seeing various modes of dialogue that is reproducing and transforming how our society is now portraying education. This has led to interesting and diverse power relations that is proving to be very prevalent in the midst of our country’s unemployment status, specifically within the discourse surrounding the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Accordingly, although education has been commonly prophesied as a means to success and greater opportunities, through the analysis of the language use within USA:Today news, as a widely popular news media throughout and around the U.S. (“Gannett: 2011 Annual Report”, 2011), we see an interesting dichotomy forming where education is affiliated with the opposite results; hence the importance of deconstructing, and re-examining influences of public and personal values, ideologies, and sentiments about this issue. (E, G. P., 2000) Consequently, a critical discourse analysis of these texts seems to suggest a mutual negative sentiment of students as participants in the Occupy Movement, in association with the financial demise and the betrayal of the promise of “education”. Here, we will discuss the ways in which education is represented through language, in the context of varying elements such as finances, which help us to understand its nature, value, and meaning within our current society.
Discourse analysis is increasingly referred to as a cross discipline composed of many methods quantitative and qualitative, rather than a single method of research. This is due to its interdisciplinary and eclectic nature as a postmodern “school or paradigm” utilizing a problem-oriented approach characterized by an interest in “demystifying ideologies and power through the systematic and retroductable investigation of semiotic data (written, spoken or visual)” (Wodak and Meyer, 2009). This view of discourse analysis assumes that texts are socially constitutive and produce varying power relations as a result, also emphasizing rigorous self-reflection on the part of the analyst due to its constructivist nature. Additionally, we took a mostly retroductive approach to this analysis moving between theory and patterns according to our topic of focus. For this analysis our group decided to focus on “USA Today” news genre known for condensing new stories down to an easy-to-read and easy-to-comprehend format. It remains the most widely circulated daily, print newspaper in the United States (“Gannett: 2011 Annual Report”, 2011). We feel that by directing our focus to “USA Today,” and “USA Today: College” specifically, we will be able to better understand how education is being portrayed in the Occupy Wall Street Movement through a very dominant, widespread, and easily accessible source. This may reveal how popular media intended for the general public is constructed and its potential influences on our perception of events, subjects/topics/issues, categories of people, and our social position or role in society. Our group collected the data through the “USA Today: College” website using the keywords (“occupy movement” or “99 percent movement” or “the 1%” or “OWS”) and (“student” or “education” or “college”), we included all the articles that we found separately according to the date ranges September to October, November to December, January to February, and February to present using the above search parameters as data in this corpus. We approximately used about 120 articles for this corpus which summed up to 91,152 words. The type-token ratio was .1104085. These parameters helped us assess specifically how “education” is associated in the current occupy movement as centered in the U.S. We believed that the words that we used in our search criteria encompassed all terms generally used in newspapers such as USA Today to indicate discourse related to education and the occupy movement. The date ranges were chosen so that it covers the time period the present “occupy movement” was and is taking place. According to the number of articles and the number of words, the size of the corpus seems average and is consistent with the readings we have read so far. For example a very small corpus, according to Baker et al. (2008) is about 2500 words. Furthermore, we could use the type-token ratio, calculated by dividing the number of tokens by the number of types (Adolphs, 2006), which is, in this case, .1104085, indicating that this is a fairly complex or dense corpus, also considering that certain symbols which did not seem to have any semantic function within the corpus were counted as different types as well. Accordingly, in analyzing our corpus of “USA:Today” articles we use word lists, concordance tables and collocation through the program KWIC to find out frequency of word occurrence, collocated words pointing to semantic preference or semantic reversal, as well as their cotext. For this purpose, we focused on words that related to education within these articles talking about the occupy movement and found useful to examine the words “student(s)”, “college” and “education”, “graduate”, “degree”, “(un)employment” or “job(s)” because they occurred most frequently (students – 314 times; college – 284 times; student – 227 times,education – 103 times, and jobs – 97 times etc…) within the corpus; as well as the overall structuring of the texts drawing upon methodologies of paradigmatic choices, syntagmatic choices, semantic reversal, legitimation and pragmatics, constituting them in theories of structuralism and functionalist structuralism, as we found applicable to this corpus.
Drawn from the data that KWIC derived, the word “college” was often used in the perspective of students, as active participants in the movement, which was a noticeable and re-occurring pattern within the corpus of “USA Today: College” articles. However, we also found that these students were also being framed as passive recipients of this information, outside the movement (also outside the text), and thus assigning a specific role encompassing attitudes and behaviors used to convey who is considered a student and what characteristics define a student in relation to the occupy movement. Not only did we find that college students were given a strong voice within the movement, but we were also able to identify a specific research topic, and specific audience. The triangle of communication looked like this: College students and college graduates, as speakers, encompass a large number of the protesters of the Occupy Movement, speaking on the topic of education, spoken to those who are interested in college. This insight allowed us to interpret what the students themselves, as portrayed here, had to say about education, within the Occupy Movement. With this pattern, we were able to be more specific about what exactly was being spoken about. Digging deeper into the texts we were able to notice several patterns that reflected the portrayals of education through student experiences and the positioning of the student in particular ways within the discourse.
The contradictory nature of the value of education as constructed throughout the corpus in relation to popular beliefs
Through meso-analysis of our texts, we were then able to focus on the trends within our corpus regarding our particular topic of study and bring to bear additional patterns (Fairclough, 2003). In some instances, college was being described as a positive and highly recommended means of success in the job market, as represented in one article stating, “Yes a college education is worth the costs.” In other instances, the word “college” was described as resulting in a pit of debt, represented in an article stating, “I can’t find my future. I looked in college. I found debt.” The Occupy Movement, being about the movement of the labor industry, the prominence of education proves that financial inequalities that result from college are a driving factor in the dissatisfaction with the structure of society. Regardless of the fact that the semantic preference in bigrams such as “college graduates” and “college education” that carry a connotative meaning of accomplishment and success, in the context of the Occupy Movement, “college” was frequently being presented in collocation of lexical bundles such as “college debt,” “college loan,” college tuition,” and “ college costs.” (Sinclair, 1998)
#1 “Go to school, work hard and get ahead or your money back, is what the popular conception of American opportunity might have been. Instead, millions of Americans find themselves unemployed and underemployed . . . this feeling of betrayal is expressed in backlash towards the system and towards an investment of which they have yet to see a return.”
#2 “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.”
#3 “With so many of my peers under the chokehold of chronic student loan debt and a youth unemployment rate that nearly triples the national average, how can we not feel that our generations shot at the American dream is slipping away?”
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.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 which is associated with poor well-being. With this knowledge, we discovered a new and interesting meaning that “college” takes on based on how it is used, since meaning is contingent on shared cultural knowledge.
Positioning of students as one of the large number of competitors to limited resources or benefits available in society
Within the above pattern we see a particular reproduction of the role and position of the “student” in society. It is the construction of the student as recipients of the benefits created by the economy or by authorities constituted within social institutions. They are also portrayed to be competing for limited resources in the society with a heterogeneous group of other people. The following excerpts exemplify this pattern:
#1 Graduates are vying for jobs not only with fellow classmates, but also with workers who already have two or three years of experience, returning retirees shocked by an instability in savings and even stay-at-home moms returning to the workplace for financial purposes.
#2 Going beyond your course requirements and leaving the lecture hall can give students an added bonus when it comes to their education and their post-college job perspectives. It is no longer good enough to simply have your resume state that you received your degree. Employers are looking for workers who will stand out amongst the other applicants; they are looking for employees who know who they are and what they are good at.
#3 In order to maintain in this super-competitive world, young people have to find ways to separate themselves from applicants with more experience and more polished resumes. This is where advanced education becomes an area that gives young people a trump card. Everything from a master’s degree to a doctorate to a JD enables students to achieve employment in a field they desire.
#4 The point is, in a job market plagued by high unemployment, one sure-fire way to catch the eye of potential employers is pursuing higher levels of education.
This pattern of representation can be seen as demonstrating the socially constitutive-ness of discourse (Gill, 2000) as well as providing and establishing a certain number of positions for the audience to situate within (Blum-Kulka, S., & Hamo, M., 2011). In this case there seems to be only a very limited set of choices which all fall under the category of “one-pitted against the other”, whether it is among employed or unemployed individuals seeking to earn a decent living under limited employment opportunities or whether it is among the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest or the rest of the 99 % seeking for a fair share of the wealth. These positions can also be seen as constituting what Stuart Hall (1997) calls the relational quality of meaning, where binaries are always valued as a way of establishing meaning or identifying one from others.
Social positioning of students in opposition to established social structures or institutions.
Although, words such as “solidarity”, “non-violent”, or “peaceful”, are used to characterize the movement, this is almost always contradicted when describing actual actions of the students within the movement. For instance, the metaphorical usage of words such as “mobilization”, “stampede”, “fight”,“demand” to describe the actions of students in the movement, very often in the corpus, conveys a militaristic or violent environment where certain groups or individuals are polarized against each other. This polarization is mainly constructed in relation to established social structures or institutions (including their enforced ideologies); also creating a polarization between individuals or groups as either for or against these institutions and their hegemonic influences.
#1 In solidarity with UC Davis , UC Berkeley, CUNY Schools and all students who are defending their right to protest against rising tuition cost and out of control student debt. We ask you to STRIKE! No work, no school ¨please join together in a central area of your choosing and stand up against the VIOLENCE and SUPPRESSION that is happening in our schools,¡± the website states.
#2 For most of Wednesday, peace prevailed at the rallies in Oakland, even attracting families, some taking their children along in strollers.
#3 Occupy Wall Street protesters in cities across the nation have taken to the streets as part of a nationwide show of solidarity.
#4 The protest Friday was held in support of the overall Occupy Wall Street movement and in solidarity with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley who were jabbed by police with batons on Nov. 9.
#5 Elsewhere in the U.S. on Saturday, protesters assembled in Albuquerque, N.M., Boston and Los Angeles to express their solidarity with the movement in New York, though their demands remain unclear.
#6 “In a country that has been plagued by misguided bipartisanship, we are, and have been for many years now, in desperate need of something that surmounts party lines and quite literally brings us together,” a staff editorial notes in City on a Hill Press, the campus paper at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “And Occupy Wall Street has done just that. The sheer quantity of individuals in the mobilization shows the American people feel like there is something worth fighting for.”
#7 Occupy Wall Street: College media join the coverage stampede
#8 With so many American students facing the uncertainty created by greed and political corruption, we must now make a choice. We can either continue partying like we just don’t care, or we can stand up now and demand a better future.
Consequently, this pattern of representation can be seen as reproducing capitalist sentiments (structuralism) of an unrelenting competition; also reconstituting the positions audience can take ( functionalist-structuralism) in relation to these circumstances (Gill, 2000). These would be to either agree with and actively engage in the occupy movement accepting all of its characteristics as represented including its violent actions framed as non-violent assembly as constructed within these texts or go against it and embrace the consumerist competition. This positioning of the audience in this particular way in the context of this movement can also be seen through the lens of pragmatics which says discourse can be realized as a social act (Blum-Kulka, S., & Hamo, M., 2011).
In conclusion, our group agrees that this analysis allowed us to see certain contradictions to how education is portrayed; specifically through the reproduction and positioning of students through the language used to represent their views, actions and role or status in society. To be more specific, education is traditionally made to mean as a means for knowledge production which was later (historically) associated with higher status in society due to the exclusiveness of its institutions to those individuals from privileged backgrounds. However, as time passed with the emphasis on democracy and individual rights education became associated with equal opportunity, hope and justice. Although the nature and goals of education changed overtime, and with it, its curriculum and ways of instruction, these historical conceptions of education seem to have somehow accumulated through time without really adapting to its current structure. This may be attributed to its current competitive nature (especially in the U.S.) which tries to market its institutions appealing to the public, reproducing its “nostalgic” conceptions. Notwithstanding, American college students enduring extreme economic woes, mounting educational debt, and no hope of finding gainful employment even after obtaining a college degree have joined hands to reveal, and re-examine the true nature of education (as produced by social institutions). Therefore, through a sample of texts, i.e. USA Today: College, we are able to see an emergence of an interesting new power dynamic in the portrayals of the actual participants of education, i.e. students, within a socially constructed movement, i.e. the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
This emergence could be seen as, within the context of this movement, the 99% 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 qualitatively and quantitatively 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. The quality of this interpretation can be upheld because not only were we, as critical discourse analysts, immersed in the data on a daily basis, we were also living in the words, in reflective ways as college students ourselves. Since we experience life through “transversals,” specifically through economic and cultural ties, our personal materialized settings offer authority to our findings. As analysis with insider status’s we can resonate with what is being said and bring contextual knowledge to the interpretations. Not only in the context of the Occupy Movement, but in the context of our daily lives, 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.
Or these patterns of data can also be seen as establishing what is educationally possible within the confines of what is viewed to be politically and economically possible. This is understood through the consistent establishment of education as merely a path for economic advancement, while simultaneously privileging the discourse rhetoric of a consumer-driven capitalist culture through the positioning of students as one of the large number of competitors to limited resources or benefits available in society in a large portion of the corpus; also due to the positioning of students involved in the occupy movement as in opposition to established social structures or institutions in a way that constructs the power of the educationally possible as inferior to what is economically possible. Overall, this analysis seems to demonstrate discourse as socially constitutive, reproducing and reestablishing ideologies and hegemonies of the wider social structure/order that it is situated within (pragmatics and structuralism), also acting socially ( discourse as a social act) to reinforce or to re-confine social actors or participants into positions/roles already available in social structures (Wodak, 2009). This is especially true of a market-driven genre like “USA Today” regulated by a centrally regulated agency that seeks to produce objective truths about the world. Finally, in keeping with the basic premises of discourse studies, these interpretations are by no means a final word about the nature of this data; but rather a specific set of observations, that may be interpreted differently, given the same data, in a way that is consistent with the value placed on specific information, within the corpus, by the observer or analyst. However, the hope is that this would urge the reader to be critically aware of such elements and patterns within daily discourses in order to act in a critically informed way.
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