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Higher Education and the Promise of Insurgent Public Memory

Posted on Mar 9, 2015

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

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This piece first appeared at Truthout.

“What happens to the memory of history when it ceases to be testimony?” - James Young

At a time when both political parties, anti-public intellectual pundits and mainstream news sources view the purpose of higher education almost exclusively as a workstation for training a global workforce, generating capital for the financial elite, and as a significant threat to the power of the military, corporate and ultra-rich, it becomes more difficult to reclaim a history in which the culture of business is not the culture of higher education. This is certainly not meant to suggest that higher education once existed in an ideal past in which it only functioned as a public good and provided a public service in the interest of developing a democratic polity.

Higher education has always been fraught with notable inequities and anti-democratic tendencies, but it also once functioned as a crucial reminder of both its own limitations and the potential role it might play in attacking social problems and deepening the promise of a democracy to come. As difficult as it may seem to believe, John Dewey’s insistence that “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife” was once taken seriously by many academic leaders. Today, it is fair to see that Dewey’s once vaunted claim has been willfully ignored, forgotten or made an object of scorn.


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Throughout the 20th century, there have been flashpoints in which the struggle to shape the university in the interest of a more substantive democracy was highly visible. Those of us who lived through the 1960s remember a different image of the university. Rather than attempt to train MBAs, define education through the lens of mathematical utility, indoctrinate young people into the culture of capitalism, decimate the power of faculty and turn students into mindless consumers, the university presented itself as a site of struggle. That is, it served, in part, as a crucial public sphere that held power accountable, produced a vast array of critical intellectuals, joined hands with the antiwar and civil rights movements and robustly challenged what Mario Savio once called “the machine” - an operating structure infused by the rising strength of the financial elite that posed a threat to the principles of critique, dissent, critical exchange and a never-ending struggle for inclusivity. The once vibrant spirit of resistance that refused to turn the university over to corporate and military interests is captured in Savio’s moving and impassioned speech on December 2, 1964, on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.

The 1960s may have been the high point of that period in US education in which the merging of politics, justice, civil rights and the search for truth made clear what it meant to consider higher education as a democratic public sphere. Not everyone was pleased or supported this explosion of dissent, resistance to the Vietnam War and struggle to make campuses across the United States more inclusive and emancipatory. Conservatives were deeply disturbed by the campus revolts and viewed them as a threat to their dream worlds of privatization, deregulation, militarization, capital accumulation and commodification. What soon emerged was an intense struggle for the soul of higher education.

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project.

For instance, the Powell Memo was released on August 23, 1971, and authored for the Chamber of Commerce by Lewis F. Powell Jr., who would later be appointed as a member of the US Supreme Court. Powell identified the US college campus “as the single most dynamic source” for producing and housing intellectuals “who are unsympathetic to the [free] enterprise system.” He recognized that one crucial strategy in changing the political composition of higher education was to convince university administrators and boards of trustees that the most fundamental problem facing universities was the lack of conservative educators, or what he labeled the “imbalance of many faculties.”

Conservatives have a long history of viewing higher education as a cradle of left-wing thought and radicalism.

The Powell Memo was designed to develop a broad-based strategy, not only to counter dissent but also to develop a material and ideological infrastructure with the capability to transform the US public consciousness through a conservative pedagogical commitment to reproduce the knowledge, values, ideology and social relations of the corporate state. Not only did the Powell Memo understand and take seriously the educative nature of politics, it also realized that if a crisis of economics was not matched by a crisis of ideas, it was easier to reproduce a society in which conformity could be bought off through the swindle of a neoliberal mantra that used the discourse of freedom, individuality, mobility and security to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The Powell Memo was the most influential of one of a number of ideological interventions in the 1970s that developed political roadmaps to crush dissent, eliminate tenure and transform the university into an adjunct of free-market fundamentalism. But it certainly was not the first shot fired as part of a larger conservative struggle to shape US higher education.

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