One of the biggest challenges that I faced in helping students to think critically about pop culture and the world around them at large was helping them to think through the role that anecdotes played in their thought processes. “To what extent,” I would ask, “can or should a personal account constitute proof and how many data points are necessary to make a case?”
The answer was always, “It depends.”
A story can be a form of qualitative evidence but the question is always “evidence of what?” What I tried to convey to students was that what counts as evidence depends on what question(s) you’re asking: arguing that something can occur, does occur, and consistently occurs are all very different propositions and students would often conflate the three.
It is with this background that I considered Kevin’s blog post for today along with the larger story that it gestures toward. It comes as no surprise that various entities are using the story to meet their own ends, often employing it in order to confirm what they already know about the world but yet I am worried about the same thing that troubles Kevin: I fear that students and families will confuse what is possible with what is probable.
My worries about Enin perpetuating the model of the all-star student aside, I have spent some time thinking about the invocation of race in response to the original stories. I have not yet delved into the bowels of College Confidential (because that takes a special kind of fortitude and I might need to go wine shopping), but the comments on Reddit have been rather interesting to follow. Indeed, it is sort of difficult not to think about how discussion over Enin comes to stand in for a larger set of issues that surrounds race given the temporal proximity to the controversy surrounding #CancelColbert.
Without taking anything away from Enin or his achievement, I am saddened that the media coverage of the media coverage of him has focused on this case without largely incorporating the ways in which the story is already being invoked in conversations about affirmative action (see, for example, the comments of Valerie Strauss’ “Can we stop obsessing on the Ivy League?”). More importantly, how do we read this story against items like a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that confirms the continued existence of the achievement gap? Or the way in which “black” and “male” intersect with education in America? Additionally, even if we were interested in limiting the scope of our inquiry to a sample that looked at high-achieving black students, how does the focus on this one part of Enin’s story override the very real discussion that need to happen about the experience of minority students in these settings? Or the challenges that Enin might face in college, at a school like Harvard?
Ultimately I think that this story can be used to think through the ways in which dominant American culture can work to cultivate aspirations while systemically undermining those hopes. In recent years, I have been influenced by Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism to think through the promise of higher education in America and the connection between structures of hope and political passivity.
The show is not the show,
But they that go.
Menagerie to me
My neighbor be.
Both went to see.
Although the second chapter of Lisa Duggan’s The Twilight of Equality? focuses on an examination of neoliberalism’s campaigns in the culture wars, there is something profound about the choice to concentrate on education and housing as two domains of change in the latter half of the 20th century. Following World War II, both education (in the form of a college degree) and a home were part of the democratic dream of the American citizen. Surveying the current landscape, however, we see that what once was bright has turned dark as both the housing industry and higher education have increasingly become privatized industries that are almost inextricably linked with debt. Encapsulating a force that contributed to this shift, Dugan writes:
Rather than support the idea that resources were adequate for broad-based public sharing of the fruits of prosperity, business activists promoted the idea that resources were scarce, and fierce competition among groups and individuals would be required to secure a comfortable life. (36)
In some ways reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism, we find that the very thing that purports to offer us light is the very thing that causes us to be further bound to a system that ultimately drags us down.
Additionally, we might consider how the neoliberal impulse mentioned in Duggan also manifests in reality television programs like House Hunters. Ostensibly a 30-minute program on HGTV that details a couple’s search for a new home, House Hunters sticks to a formula that essentially includes the prospective buyers surveying three prospective properties with the help of a real estate agent, making an offer on one of the properties (that is almost always accepted), and moving in at the conclusion of the episode. Aside from an unrealistic portrayal of the home-buying process, House Hunters works to solidify and normalize the privatization of the domestic space through its promotion of home ownership.
House Hunters television promo (2010)
House Hunters also makes abundantly clear just how intertwined race, class, sexuality and politics really are with its portrayal of viewers and the lingering comment, “I thought they were brothers.” More importantly, however, the home, in some ways the most private of cultural spaces, has now become a site for spectatorship on multiple levels as viewers see the innards of the house themselves but also experience a measure of voyeurism vicariously through the featured couple. Indeed, the format of the show as reality television makes explicit Clay Calvert’s phenomenon of the “voyeur nation” as “a nation of watchers performing their verification practices with an eye to the gaze of an imagined other, in order to avoid being seen as a dupe” (in Andrejevic, 239). The flip side, then, of reality shows’ democratizing promise that “everybody can be a judge” is that we are, in some ways, expected to have an opinion about the latest thing to be scrutinized; feeling the ever watchful gaze of others we examine the house just as ardently as the featured couple, knowing that we might be called upon at any moment to render our opinion.
If, however, the emphasis on home ownership demonstrates how the intersection between economics and the domestic is subject to privatization, the manifestation of House Hunters as a reality television show also indicates ways in which the overlap between the domestic/family and culture is increasingly made more public in service of economic gain. The issue here is one of privatization and privacy as the logics of neoliberalism turn privacy into a commodity.