Friday, October 2, 2009

A Cultural Analysis of College Safety

The Daily Beast, a "news reporting and opinion web site," published by Tina Brown (a former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker) and edited by Edward Felsenthal (a former editor at The Wall Street Journal), recently compiled a list of the 25 most unsafe college campuses in America.

Safety at Fordham is a delicate issue to all students here, not just American Studies majors, especially in light of the recent string of off-campus incidents.  However, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate this list through some of the cultural studies theories we have recently learned about in the American Studies thesis seminar.

The findings of this college safety survey were interesting.  Harvard, Yale, MIT, Tufts and Brown (Professor Hendler's alma mater)- some of America's most prestigious institutions of higher learning-  were among the 25 most unsafe campuses in America.  They were accompanied by many schools in Maryland, where crime and crime reporting standards are each very high.  Also with them on the list were six historically black universities. Fordham was (luckily!) not included on this list of unsafe colleges.

For cultural studies scholars, like the ones we've been engaging with in class, the holistic compilation/existence of this list is far more interesting to analyze than it's individual findings.  There are largely two schools of thought in cultural analysis, the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham School, and each would receive the list differently.

Frankfurt scholars subscribe to something called "Critical Theory," believing that "one must be critical of the structure of underlying social practices to reveal the possible distortion of social life embodied in them" (Shawn Rosenberg). In essence, these scholars believe that there is an underlying social consciousness that perpetuates through society, a narrow lens or limited framework we are predetermined to see the world through.  In terms of production and the creation of products, Frankfurt scholars believe that humans are not who the products are made for but products themselves.

Birmingham scholars subscribe to "Reception Theory," believing that individuals are not predetermined to simply believe the social practices around them; they are not passive audiences but active participants.  Birmingham scholars believe each individual has the ability to receive information, "negotiate" its meaning, and ultimately interpret it for himself or herself based on his or her individual circumstances.

Based on my limited understanding of these theories, I believe Frankfurt scholars would be extremely critical of this list.  They would say that,no matter how controlled the methodology the researchers utilized was, the controls would not be enough to circumvent the underlying social consciousness that surround these American institutions.  In essence, the list would always be a reflection of some of society's underlying prejudices- like the association of minority universities with crime and the existence of largely prestigious in poorer areas- and the findings would serve as a vehicle of perpetuation for such beliefs.

Birmingham scholars would take an alternative perspective, believing that the list would be interpreted differently by each respective individual to which it is presented, that people would decide for themselves whether the results were tainted.

Safety on college campuses is a difficult subject to analyze.  Even when the compilation is meant to be scientific (simply ranking universities by the number criminal incidents they report each year) it is inevitably permeated with the individual geographical, sociological and economical circumstances associated with each university.

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