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Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere

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Posted on Apr 24, 2014

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By Victoria Harper, Truthout

(Page 2)

What is distinct about the current threat to higher education and the humanities in particular is the increasing pace of the corporatization and militarization of the university, the squelching of academic freedom, the rise of an ever-increasing contingent of part-time faculty, the use of violence to squelch peaceful student dissent, and the view that students are basically consumers and faculty providers of a saleable commodity such as a credential or a set of workplace skills.

Particularly disturbing here is the war on faculty and the ongoing attempts to impose modes of governance based on a business model, one that reduces faculty to part-time help with no power or security. Faculty are being turned into a labor forces that mimics Walmart workers while the managerial class is expanding, draining off funds from faculty and students, and governing the university as if it were a branch of General Motors and Disneyland.

More striking still is the slow death of the university as a center of critique, vital source of civic education, and crucial public good.  Many faculties are now demoralized as they increasingly lose their rights and power. Many now find themselves staring into an abyss, either unwilling to address the current attacks on the university or befuddled over how the language of specialization and professionalization has cut them off from not only connecting their work to larger civic issues and social problems but also developing any meaningful relationships to a larger democratic polity. As an adjunct of the academic-military-industrial complex, higher education has nothing to say about teaching students how to think for themselves in a democracy, how to think critically and engage with others, and how to address through the prism of democratic values the relationship between themselves and the larger world. Hence, students are treated like commodities and data to be ingested and spit out as potential job seekers for whom education has been reduced to a form of training. 

Students are now taught to ignore human suffering and to focus mainly on their own self-interests and by doing so they are being educated to exist in a political and moral vacuum. Education under neoliberalism is a form of radical depoliticization, one that kills the radical imagination and the hope for a world that is more just equal, and democratic society.


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You write that academics have an important role to play as public intellectuals in higher education. Can you elaborate on that role?

I tried to stress in the book that not only were many academics under siege as a result of the increased corporatization and militarization of higher education, but that many had succumbed to the seductions of power, while a minority took a very different role and were attempting with great difficulty to engage in modes of teaching and scholarship that addressed wider civic values and crucial social problems.

In the first instance, I write about what I called gated intellectuals. That is, academics who have become comfortable with the rewards of power and in doing so buy into defining themselves as servants of established power, accepting the transformation of the university in an appendage of the marketplace, and doing what they can to legitimate such a poisonous vision of higher education. They generally are technicians who have no vision and expect very little for their students and are largely concerned about turning research and teaching into acts of commerce. Gated intellectuals have no interest in helping to construct a more just world or using their knowledge and skills to help students and others come to a better understanding of how power works and what it means to inhabit a discourse of rigor, morality, and responsibility. 

On the other hand, there are those academics who are both clever and frivolous, anti-political and often indifferent to the growing plight of human suffering. Their academic work is often utterly privatized and unconnected to important social issues and always haughty - and they were quite unaware of the caricatures they had become. And while they are not directly complicit with the workings of the corporate university, they have become irrelevant by virtue of their jargonized language, cerebral convolutions, and their refusal, as James Baldwin once put it, “to disturb the peace.” There is also the issue of careerism and the powerful force it exercises in undermining intellectual courage, which has given way to the comfortable space of accommodation. In this instance, the notion of the public intellectual has given way to the “public relations intellectual,” the overheated talking head spewing out sound bites to various media outlets.

In the second instance, there are also a number of academics who are public intellectuals who model what it means to be to connect their scholarship to important public issues, work across a number of disciplines, address a variety of audiences, and refuse a notion of education that is compatible with the vision of accountants. Such intellectuals assume the role of public intellectuals, wakeful and mindful of their responsibilities to bear testimony to human suffering and the pedagogical possibilities at work in educating students to be autonomous, self-reflective, and socially responsible. In this case, I argue in the book for intellectuals who not only teach students how to be critical, to search for the truth, but also to understand education as the practice of freedom.

At a time of rising authoritarianism and state and corporate violence in the United States and elsewhere, academics have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus, and challenge common sense.  The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition.  Put simply, I argue in the book that academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, and making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view. Too many intellectuals focus on how something can be done efficiently rather than ask if it is right or wrong, if it benefits human kind and the planet rather than simply being reduced to an empty form of neoliberal instrumentality.

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