Monday, December 28, 2009

My Two Essays for Marlboro College

The first is my personal statement, in which I respond to the prompt: "Write a personal statement about who you are, how you think, what you value, and what issues and ideas interest you the most. Also tell us how your interest in Marlboro developed and how attending Marlboro College fits into your overall goals."

A Personal Statement for Marlboro College

From the moment I discovered Marlboro College it has held a distinct appeal for me. Even the aspects that may commonly scare prospective students away, from its secluded location to its small size, are attractive: I can't wait to get out of the suburbs and closer to nature, and Malboro College seems as close to the middle of “nowhere” as any college I've considered. Of course, what really draws me to the college is the character of its program: I am looking for academic intensity and intellectual seriousness. Marlboro College appears to be the school that will challenge and empower me to translate what I've learned so far - and doubtlessly the much greater amount I still have to learn - into the foundation I need to accomplish my long-term goals.

I graduated from Cass City High School in 2006, a small public high school in the very rural and conservative heart of the thumb of Michigan. While there were some positive exceptions, I consider most of my schooling there an overall detriment to my education. For various reasons I left the school disillusioned with the role of public schools and skeptical of the notion of “higher education.” My high school transcript is not particularly impressive, however this was and is not so much a reflection of my capacity for learning as it is of the boredom and apathy induced by the atmosphere and academics of Cass City High School, and much less is it a reflection of my desire to learn, which is stronger than ever.

I'd like to think a more important education began for me upon graduation. Almost immediately I started reading voraciously, and within a year I absorbed several dozen works of natural and social philosophy and science. During this period I developed or adopted many positions and beliefs on a range of contemporary problems, and have spent much of my time since writing and further enhancing my understanding of the philosophies and theories behind major social, political, economic, and ecological ideas. While my primary interest has been in political philosophy, I have also read many popular science books on evolutionary biology, anthropology, linguistics, astronomy, human ecology, and physics (which is my current niche of exploration). I am also beginning to introduce myself to subjects I have mostly neglected, including cultural studies, language, sociology, mathematics, computer science, and psychology.

My wide reading has inspired in me many reflections on the human condition, and has caused me to at least question and at best discard many underlying assumptions which I used to take for granted. While I am not nearly as ideologically hot-tempered as I used to be I still operate on the conviction that modern industrial civilization has been organized along lines that are ecologically unsustainable, socially stratifying, and politically and economically unjust. While the world's resources are carelessly depleted; while its wondrous and essential biodiversity is being erased; and while a significant portion of its populations starve or lack (or are kept from) the means to improve their lives, the wealthiest nations thoughtlessly embrace, or at best placidly tolerate, mindless consumer culture, the resurgences of jingoistic nationalism and corrupted religions, hollow social relations, junk popular science, and a polity that is increasingly dominated by the influences of business and finance.

Such is my take on the world as I see it, and my academic plans extend from these thoughts. I feel many of the problems we face today are worsened by a failing public discourse. So it is my ambition to use my new-found talents and understanding, achieved through the rigor of the Marlboro College program, to be a popularizer of knowledge in the tradition of Carl Sagan or Will Durant. I want to come away from Marlboro College in a position both to contribute to my field of study and to improve the public understanding of its subject matter, especially where it is socially relevant.

Though my independent study has been consistently invigorating, it has also been sporadic and somewhat unfocused, and has surely lacked elements that are crucial to a proper, effective education. This realization is what first brought me to the college search in the summer of 2009. Still feeling sour toward major academic institutions, I decided to search out small liberal arts colleges. Thanks to the advice of a friend's father, I happened upon Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives and, subsequently, Marlboro College. It advertised what immediately stuck out as precisely the type of program and environment I wanted to immerse myself in, and that feeling has only intensified as I have read more about the college. I hope to use the Marlboro College experience to coalesce my many fragmented ideas into a proper thesis (or several), and to build the skills I need to make any lasting contributions I can to the advancement of public knowledge and understanding, and by extension the realization of a freer, more just, and more sustainable society.

Next is my "expository writing sample," which is a straightforward analytical essay. It sums up my understanding of the process and role of the US media system. They say that they are looking for something which demonstrates my "social consciousness" so I thought the topic was appropriate, as well as happening to fall within my specialty. It is largely theoretical, and contains no case studies or real-world examples, as I felt they would lopside the essay too much, but perhaps I'm wrong. Also, the title is far too academic sounding and in that way may sound a bit presumptuous. Anyway:

The Social Cost of Market-Based News Dissemination in America

“Information is the currency of democracy” - Thomas Jefferson

Today more than ever the mass news media maintains a significant pressure on, and in certain situations entirely shapes, public discourse in America. It ceaselessly informs the opinions of ordinary Americans on a great variety of issues, from wars and financial crises to fashion and Hollywood gossip. As people become further removed from the realities of modern life – from increasingly esoteric scientific discoveries to the towering complexities and obfuscations of government decision-making – it has become necessary to examine more critically the mechanisms which relay information from the heights of academia and government to the everyday sensibilities of working Americans. Ideally, these mechanisms would operate in a way that enhances public knowledge and democratic and economic participation, contributing to the public interest. These mechanisms exist predominantly as businesses that compete with each other in the market for profit, and it turns out the costs of doing business – the exchanging of audiences for sponsorship – can have significant social consequences.

In a process that began in the nineteenth century with the advent of telegraphy and photography, and that exploded in the latter half of the twentieth, television broadcasting has replaced printed media and radio as the prevailing format of news dissemination in America. According to a poll conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2001, 53 percent of Americans rely primarily on television for their news, while newspaper readers make up only 29 percent of those polled. The shift from print media to electronic media has had a broadly negative impact, warns Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, on public knowledge and discourse in America. Postman argues that television as a media format – as opposed to books or early newspapers - is innately biased toward entertainment values, regardless of the type of program or content aired. He points out that any commercially successful model of television programming “offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend... and is largely aimed at emotional gratification.” He argues that if this model is the most successful in attracting viewers in general, and consequently (and consequentially) the advertisers that follow them, then even news programs must emulate it in order to secure the advertisers' sponsorship. This has meant the cutting of lengthy exposition, contextual analysis, and continuity of content from news programs in an attempt to make them more palatable to a perceived fickle consumer audience. He calls the information that is left over from this process disinformation, and he explains that this is not false information – as might be expected from the propaganda apparatus of a totalitarian state – but “misleading information – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information – information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” What results is a necessarily distorted picture of the world, which is presented to the viewing (and voting) public as truth.

This problem is significantly expanded in the case of televised analysis and debate. Postman writes that “in part because television sells its time in seconds and minutes, in part because television must use images rather than words, in part because its audience can move freely to and from the television set, programs are structured so that almost each eight-minute segment may stand as a complete event in itself.” Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extend this thought in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, explaining that “the technical structure of the media virtually compels adherence to conventional thoughts; nothing else can be expressed between two commercials... without the appearance of absurdity that is difficult to avoid when one is challenging familiar doctrine with no opportunity to develop facts or argument.” In this way the absence of exposition, context, and continuity has the effect of naturally shedding fringe and alternative viewpoints from televised discourse. It also serves to shut out dissenting voices from the dominating avenue of information dissemination, leaving only those that stick closer to traditional or more “moderate” lines of thought.

This is echoed in the central thesis of Herman and Chomsky's book, in which they establish a theoretical set of naturally emerging “filters” that determine de facto newsworthiness. When views and analyses that meaningfully challenge the status quo are denied access to the major channels of information flow for most Americans, they argue, the news media inadvertently end up serving elite and corporate interests. This is not the result of a conspiracy on the part of an interested class, they go on, but is largely an “outcome of the workings of market forces.” These “market forces” are the result of the advertising-dependent business model that dominates large media firms. In 2003, newspapers received on average 80% of their revenues by selling print space to advertisers, while virtually all of the revenue earned by television and radio broadcasters was through advertising. Herman and Chomsky write that “with advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers' choices influence media prosperity and survival.” It turns out that “in essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers).” When a news program or network carries subject matter that may be construed as politically radical or harmful to the national interest, or one that considers social perspectives and worldviews that are too far from established societal norms, it risks losing the essential support of its sponsors to other networks and programs that more strictly filter their content. What is left is a situation in which news media companies must decide between presenting a genuine variety of views and analyses on any pertinent but controversial topic or maintaining their competitiveness as mediums for advertisement, and thus their profitability and survival as businesses. The public is then left without ready access to a great deal of relevant information that would enable them to critically observe and affect the actions of their government.

In order to actively participate in - or even to effectively observe - government decision-making, citizens require a genuine range of views and analyses, lest only established or traditional doctrines prevail. It has long been assumed that free access to information is a cornerstone of healthy democracies. As Thomas Ferguson explains in The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money Driven Political Systems, “to effectively control governments, ordinary voters require strong channels that directly facilitate mass deliberation and expression.” When economic realities constrict the dominant channels of deliberation and expression, citizens must expend considerable effort in order to obtain the information that does not make it through the news media filters, whether by seeking out alternative perspectives on the Internet or in independent magazines and newspapers. This leads to less political participation on the part of working Americans, as "even highly motivated voters face comparatively enormous costs when they attempt to acquire, evaluate, and act upon political information." Consequently, Ferguson argues, this has tended toward more political participation on the part of businesses, whose costs of gathering and acting on information are comparatively low - especially when weighed against the potential benefits of influence over political processes. Ordinary Americans are left behind as power shifts to corporations, which have now come to enjoy supreme influence over the outcomes of elections, concludes Ferguson. If we are to take democracy – of, by, and for the people - as a desirable mode of government, then it follows that the resulting gap in political influence, partially a consequence of uneven access to information, between ordinary citizens and corporations is detrimental to American democracy.

These effects represent a significant market failure – a situation in which the free market has produced an inefficient and socially undesirable effect. Whenever public awareness and understanding of social, political, economic, and ecological problems is limited as a result of natural market processes, a significant social cost has been incurred, one which reduces the public's capacity for meaningful participation in democratic processes. At its worst, the resulting situation is a severe asymmetry of information between social classes and a deficit of democracy. As in other examples of market failure – the most recognized being climate change as a result of unchecked industrial activity – reforms or the development of viable alternatives to the major news media have become necessary to ensure equal access to information amongst private citizens, and by extension the healthy functioning of democracy in America.

Let me know what one thinks. Any glaring errors? Considering that I have not attended college yet and most every contributor to this blog has, lemme know if you think these are what a small liberal arts college may be looking for. Thanksss.

1 comment:

  1. I only have the brainpower for the first one right now, but I think it's good. No glaring errors. It's honest. I read pieces of the second one and it looks really interesting and solid, too. Sorry I'm not saying anything interesting, but I just wanted to respond quickly to what I read in case you're on a time crunch. Basically, I think it's really good. Send it.