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Higher Education and the Politics of Disruption

Posted on Mar 21, 2015

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)

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This piece was drawn largely from Henry A. Giroux’s keynote speech presented March 13 to a conference on higher education and inequality, jointly sponsored by the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers. It first appeared in this form at Truthout.

We now live at a time in which institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished. The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor people of color and any vestige of the social contract. Free-market policies, values and practices - with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections and the deregulation of economic activity - now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in the United States.

Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, noncommodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly commercialized - or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins. For example, higher education is defined more and more as simply another core element of corporate power and culture, viewed mostly as a waste of taxpayers’ money, and denied its value as a democratic public sphere and guardian of public values. What has become clear is that the attack on the social state, workers and unions is now being matched by a full-fledged assault on higher education. Such attacks are not happening just in the United States but in many other parts of the globe where casino capitalism is waging a savage battle to eliminate all of those public spheres that might offer a glimmer of opposition to and protection from market-driven policies, institutions, ideology and values.

It is more crucial than ever to believe that the university is both a public trust and social good.

We live at a time when it is more crucial than ever to believe that the university is both a public trust and social good. At best, it is a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility and the struggle for justice. In addition, higher education should be at the “heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times.” Underlying this vision of the university are some serious questions about its relationship to the larger society. For instance, how might the university’s responsibility be understood with respect to safeguarding the interests of young people at a time of violence and war, the rise of a rampant anti-intellectualism, a devastating gap in income and wealth, the rise of the surveillance state, and the threat of ecological and nuclear devastation? What might it mean to define the university as a pedagogical space that disrupts, disturbs, inspires and energizes young people to be individual and social agents rather than as an institution that redefines itself in terms of market values and reacts mostly to market fluctuations? It is in the spirit of such considerations that I first want to address those larger economic, social and cultural interests produced largely by the growing inequalities in wealth, income and power that threaten the notion of higher education as a democratic public good.


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As higher education’s role as a center of critical thought and civic engagement is devalued, society is being transformed into a “spectacular space of consumption” and financial looting. One consequence is an ongoing flight from mutual obligations and social responsibilities and a loss of faith in politics itself. This loss of faith in the power of politics, public dialogue and dissent is not unrelated to the diminished belief in higher education as central to producing critically engaged, civically literate and socially responsible citizens. At stake here are not only the meaning and purpose of higher education, but also civil society, politics and the fate of democracy itself. And yet, under the banner of right-wing reforms, the only questions being asked about knowledge production, the purpose of education, the nature of politics and the future are determined largely by market forces. In this discourse, education is reduced to training, public values are transformed into crude instrumental values, and public and higher education are reduced to operating systems, posing problems that can only be solved through quantification, effective programming, high-stakes testing and an obsession with numerical data. This is a form of neoliberal or corporatized education wedded to market-driven values that lacks any vestige of a democratic vision and makes clear “the contradiction between democratic values and market fundamentalism.”

Market Mantras

The mantras of the new market fundamentalism are now well known: Progress can only be measured through incessant economic growth and “is the only way to handle the challenges and possibly resolve all and any problems.” Consuming and discarding are the ultimate engines and measure of happiness. Inequality in wealth and power is the product of individual achievement and benefits everyone. A survival-of-the-fittest ethos drives competition and produces the most qualified individuals to inhabit the commanding economic, political and cultural institutions through which a society governs. “Individual interests are the only reality that matters [and] those interests are purely monetary.” Society is a fabrication and the only viable mode of governance is market-driven. Privatization, deregulation and commodification are the preconditions for freedom and for regulating the social order. Public and higher education is a private right and should serve individual and corporate interests rather than the public good.

Missing from neoliberal market societies are those public spheres - from public and higher education to the mainstream media and digital screen culture - where people can develop what might be called the civic imagination. Tied largely to instrumental ideologies and measurable paradigms, many institutions of higher education are now committed almost exclusively to economic goals, such as preparing students for the workforce - all done as part of an appeal to rationality, one that eschews matters of inequality, power, public values and the ethical grammars of suffering. Many universities have not only strayed from their democratic mission, but also they seem immune to the plight of students who face a harsh new world of high unemployment, the prospect of downward mobility and debilitating debt.

A record number of adjuncts are now on food stamps and receive some form of public assistance.

The question of what kind of education is needed for students to be informed and active citizens in a world that increasingly ignores their needs, if not their future, is rarely asked. In the absence of a democratic vision of schooling, it is not surprising that some colleges and universities are increasingly opening their classrooms to corporate interests, standardizing the curriculum, instituting top-down governing structures that mimic corporate culture and generating courses that promote entrepreneurial values unfettered by social concerns or ethical consequences.

Central to this view of higher education in the United States is a market-driven paradigm that seeks to eliminate tenure, turn the humanities into a job preparation service and transform most faculty members into an army of temporary subaltern labor. For instance, in the United States out of 1.5 million faculty members, 1 million are “adjuncts who are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, and no unemployment insurance when they are out of work.” The indentured service status of such faculty is put on full display as some colleges have resorted to using “temporary service agencies to do their formal hiring.” A record number of adjuncts are now on food stamps and receive some form of public assistance. Given how little they are paid this should not come as a surprise, though that does not make it any less shameful. As Noam Chomsky has argued, this reduction of faculty to the status of subaltern labor is “part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.”

While it has been clearly recognized that the ideal of shared governance between faculty and administrators has broken down, what has not been analyzed is how the Walmart model of power and labor relations - in both the university and the larger society - is connected to the massive inequality in wealth and income that now corrupts every aspect of US politics and society. No democracy can survive the kind of inequality in which “the 400 richest people ... have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined, that’s 50 percent of the entire country [while] the top economic 1 percent of the U.S. population now has a record 40 percent of all wealth and more wealth than 90 percent of the population combined.” On a global scale, anti-poverty charity Oxfam reports that it expects “the wealthiest 1% to own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.”

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