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Beyond Neoliberal Miseducation

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Posted on Mar 21, 2014

Photo by Ed Yourdon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This article draws from a number of ideas in Henry A. Giroux’s newest book, “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.” It first appeared at Truthout.

As universities turn toward corporate management models, they increasingly use and exploit cheap faculty labor while expanding the ranks of their managerial class. Modeled after a savage neoliberal value system in which wealth and power are redistributed upward, a market-oriented class of managers largely has taken over the governing structures of most institutions of higher education in the United States. As Debra Leigh Scott points out, “administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.” There is more at stake here than metrics. Benjamin Ginsberg views this shift in governance as the rise of what he calls ominously the “the all administrative university,” noting that it does not bode well for any notion of higher education as a democratic public sphere.

A number of colleges and universities are drawing more and more upon adjunct and nontenured faculty - whose ranks now constitute 1 million out of 1.5 million faculty - many of whom occupy the status of indentured servants who are overworked, lack benefits, receive little or no administrative support and are paid salaries that increasingly qualify them for food stamps. Many students increasingly fare no better in sharing the status of a subaltern class beholden to neoliberal policies and values, and largely treated as consumers for whom education has become little more than a service. Too many students are buried under huge debts that have become a major source of celebration by the collection industry because it allows them to cash in on the misfortune and hardships of an army of indebted students. Under the regime of neoliberal education, misery breeds a combination of contempt and source of profits for the banks and other financial industries. Jerry Aston, a member of that industry, wrote in a column after witnessing a protest rally by students criticizing their mounting debt that he “couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represent - for our industry.” And, of course, this type of economic injustice is taking place in an economy in which rich plutocrats such as the infamous union-busting Koch brothers each saw “their investments grow by $6 billion in one year, which amounts to three million dollars per hour based on a 40-hour ‘work’ week.” One astounding figure of greed and concentrated power is revealed in the fact that in 2012, the Koch brothers “made enough money in one second to feed one homeless woman for an entire year.” Workers, students, youths and the poor are all considered expendable in this neoliberal global economy. Yet the one institution, education, that offers the opportunities for students to challenge these anti-democratic tendencies is under attack in ways that are unparalleled, at least in terms of the scope and intensity of the assault by the corporate elite and other economic fundamentalists.

Casino capitalism does more than infuse market values into every aspect of higher education; it also wages a full-fledged assault on public goods, democratic public spheres, and the role of education in creating an informed and enlightened citizenry. When former presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum argued that intellectuals were not wanted in the Republican Party, he was articulating what has become common sense in a society wedded to narrow instrumentalist values, ignorance as a political tool, and a deep-seated fear of civic literacy and a broad-based endorsement of the commons. Critical thinking and a literate public have become dangerous to those who want to celebrate orthodoxy over dialogue, emotion over reason and ideological certainty over thoughtfulness. Hannah Arendt’s warning that “it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” at the heart of authoritarian regimes is now embraced as a fundamental tenet of right-wing politicians and pundits and increasingly has become a matter of common sense for the entertainment industry and the dominant media, all primary modes of an education industry that produces consumers, smothers the country in the empty fog of celebrity culture and denounces democracy as tantamount to the enemy of free-market fundamentalism. How else to explain the willingness of so many people today to give up every vestige of privacy to the social media, the government and anyone else interested in collecting data for the most despicable and anti-democratic purposes. Self-interest does more than embrace a new culture of narcissism; it empties out any viable notion of the social, compassion, and the ethical imagination.

Right-wing appeals to austerity provide the rationale for slash-and-burn policies intended to deprive government-financed social and educational programs of the funds needed to enable them to work, if not survive. Along with health care, public transportation, Medicare, food stamp programs for low-income children, and a host of other social protections, higher education is being defunded as part of a larger scheme to dismantle and privatize all public services, goods and spheres. The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interests over the common good. The educational goal of expanding the capacity for critical thought and the outer limits of the imagination have given way to the instrumental desert of a mind-deadening audit culture. But there is more at work here than the march toward privatization and the never-ending search for profits at any cost; there is also the issue of wasteful spending on a bloated war machine, the refusal to tax fairly the rich and corporations, the draining of public funds for the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing consolidation of class power in the hands of the 1 percent.

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The deficit argument and the austerity policies advocated in its name is a form of class warfare designed largely for the state to be able to redirect revenue in support of the commanding institutions of the corporate- military-industrial complex and away from funding higher education and other crucial public services. The extent of the budget reduction assault is such that in 2012 “states reduced their education budgets by $12.7 billion. Liberals and conservatives justify such cuts by pointing to declining revenues brought in by the state but what is missing from this argument is that one major reason for the decline is because of right-wing policies and legislation that lowers the taxes of the rich and major corporations. Of course, the burden of such reductions falls upon poor minority and other low-income students, who will not be able to afford the tuition increases that will compensate for the loss of state funding. As the political state is replaced by the corporate state, tuition rises, the ranks of the poor expand, more social problems are criminalized and the punishing state blooms as a default register for potential dissent.


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