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Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University

Posted on Nov 1, 2013
kevin dooley (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

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“The University is a critical institution or it is nothing.” - Stuart Hall

I want to begin with the words of the late African-American poet, Audre Lourde, who was in her time a formidable writer, educator, feminist, gay rights activist and public intellectual who displayed a relentless courage in addressing the injustices she witnessed all around her.  She writes:

Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

And while Lourde refers to poetry here, I think a strong case can be made that the attributes she ascribes to poetry can also be attributed to higher education - a genuine higher education.  In this case, an education that includes history, philosophy, all of the arts and humanities, the criticality of the social sciences, the world of discovery made manifest by science, and the transformations in health and in law wrought by the professions that are fundamental to what it means to know something about the human condition. Lourde’s defense of poetry as a mode of education is especially crucial for those of us who believe that the university is nothing if it is not a public trust and social good; that is a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility and the struggle for justice. At best, universities should be at the “heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times.” It is in the spirit of such an ideal that I first want to address those larger economic, social, and cultural interests that threaten this notion of education, especially higher education.


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Across the globe, the forces of casino capitalism are on the march. With the return of the Gilded Age and its dream worlds of consumption, privatization and deregulation, not only are democratic values and social protections at risk, but the civic and formative cultures that make such values and protections crucial to democratic life are in danger of disappearing altogether.  As public spheres, once enlivened by broad engagements with common concerns, are being transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” the flight from mutual obligations and social responsibilities intensifies and has resulted in what Tony Judt identifies as a “loss of faith in the culture of open democracy.” This loss of faith in the power of public dialogue and dissent is not unrelated to the diminished belief in higher education as central to producing critical citizens and a crucial democratic public sphere in its own right. At stake here is not only the meaning and purpose of higher education, but also civil society, politics and the fate of democracy itself. Thomas Frank is on target when he argues that “Over the course of the past few decades, the power of concentrated money has subverted professions, destroyed small investors, wrecked the regulatory state, corrupted legislators en masse and repeatedly put the economy through the wringer. Now it has come for our democracy itself.” And, yet, the only questions being asked about knowledge production, the purpose of education, the nature of politics, and our understanding of the future are determined largely by market forces.

The mantras of neoliberalism are now well known: Government is the problem; Society is a fiction; Sovereignty is market-driven; Deregulation and commodification are vehicles for freedom; and Higher education should serve corporate interests rather than the public good. In addition, the yardstick of profit has become the only viable measure of the good life, while civic engagement and public spheres devoted to the common good are viewed by many politicians and their publics as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or alibis for government inefficiency and waste.

In a market-driven system in which economic and political decisions are removed from social costs, the flight of critical thought and social responsibility is further accentuated by what Zygmunt Bauman calls “ethical tranquillization.” One result is a form of depoliticization that works its way through the social order, removing social relations from the configurations of power that shape them,  substituting what Wendy Brown calls “emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems.”  Consequently, it becomes difficult for young people too often bereft of a critical education to translate private troubles into public concerns. As private interests trump the public good, public spaces are corroded, and short-term personal advantage replaces any larger notion of civic engagement and social responsibility.       

Under such circumstances, to cite C. W. Mills, we are witnessing the breakdown of democracy, the disappearance of critical intellectuals and “the collapse of those public spheres which offer a sense of critical agency and social imagination.”  Mill’s prescient comments amplify what has become a tragic reality. 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. For example, in the last few decades, we have seen market mentalities attempt to strip education of its public values, critical content and civic responsibilities as part of its broader goal of creating new subjects wedded to consumerism, risk-free relationships and the disappearance of the social state in the name of individual, expanded choice.  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 and the ethical grammars of suffering. Many universities have not only strayed from their democratic mission, they also seem immune to the plight of students who face a harsh new world of high unemployment, the prospect of downward mobility and debilitating debt.

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, and generating courses that promote entrepreneurial values unfettered by social concerns or ethical consequences. For example, one university is offering a master’s degree to students who, in order to fulfill their academic requirements, have to commit to starting a high-tech company. Another university allows career officers to teach capstone research seminars in the humanities. In one of these classes, the students were asked to “develop a 30-second commercial on their ‘personal brand.’ ” This is not an argument against career counseling or research in humanities seminars, but the confusion in collapsing the two.

Central to this neoliberal view of higher education in the United States and United Kingdom is a market-driven paradigm that seeks to eliminate tenure, turn the humanities into a job preparation service, and transform most faculty 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, $20,000 a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, 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.”

There is little talk in this view of higher education about the history and value of shared governance between faculty and administrators, nor of educating students as critical citizens rather than potential employees of Walmart.  There are few attempts to affirm faculty as scholars and public intellectuals who have both a measure of autonomy and power. Instead, faculty members are increasingly defined less as intellectuals than as technicians and grant writers. Students fare no better in this debased form of education and are treated as either clients or as restless children in need of high-energy entertainment - as was made clear in the 2012 Penn State scandal. Such modes of education do not foster a sense of organized responsibility fundamental to a democracy. Instead, they encourage what might be called a sense of organized irresponsibility - a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism and civic corruption at the heart of a debased politics.

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