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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 3)

What I find particularly interesting in this book is that you do not simply focus on the language of critique but also what you have called a politics of educated hope, and you do so by pointing to the inspiring role that students in Quebec and New York City have played in both resisting the corporatization of the university and connecting their struggles over higher education to broader social, political and economic issues.

Students get a bad rap in the dominant media, and this was particularly true for the protesters in Quebec and for the Occupy Movement in the US. And, of course, they have not only been demonized but have also been the subject of indiscriminate state violence, especially by the police on and off college campuses. What I tried to do was illustrate the nature of the struggles they were addressing in the academy and how those struggles related to larger social issues. For instance, in Quebec, the students organized for two years to change the ideas that people had about the necessity of raising tuition, allowing the university to be defined in utterly market-driven terms, and what it meant politically to connect the raising of tuition to the attack on the social state in general. This was an amazing display of the radical imagination at work that went far beyond simply demonstrations and single-issue politics.  Not only did they inspire students across the globe but reinforced and broadened the political struggles being waged by students in the United States. Together these movements, coupled with other student movements in Chile, France, and Greece, created a crisis of legitimacy for casino capitalism and broadened the debate about what a real democracy might look like if fashioned by the 99 percent rather than by the 1 percent.  I wanted to stress that both of these movements understood fully not only that democracy, as hijacked by the established austerity-pushing traditional political parties, was an attack on the very nature of democracy itself, but that education was central to politics as part of the struggle to change the way people think and act in the face of oppressive powers. This generation of young people represent the best hope we have for refusing a life ruled by debt collection agencies, reclaiming education as the practice of freedom, and a recognition that the majority of commanding institutions under neoliberalism no longer serve the needs of most young people or the larger public. Most importantly, I wanted to make clear that these various movements brought the issue of class power and the importance of the radical imagination back into political debates across the globe.

This book concludes with an interview with Michael A. Peters in which you merge the political and the personal in ways that speak to the conditions that many academics are facing as well as what it means to be a working-class intellectual in the US. Can you elaborate?

I wanted to conclude with an interview that provides a historical context for much of the work on critical pedagogy, youth studies, social justice, cultural politics and higher education that I address in this book.  For me, this work has not been easy. As a working-class intellectual, I found myself for much of my career in universities that were largely hostile to my experiences, cultural capital, and the critical scholarship that informed my work. This was particularly true of my experiences at Boston University, where I was denied tenure by the right-wing fundamentalist, John Silber, who was the president of the university. And this was after going through the entire tenure process at all levels with unanimous votes for tenure. It was also true of my time at Penn State, where I had to endure a couple of deans who lacked any vision, were mean-spirited, and intellectually vacuous. Fortunately, these dreadful experiences were not true for my time at Miami University and not true for my current position at McMaster University, in which both institutions generously provided the conditions and support for me to do my work and continue my role as a public intellectual. I believe that such narratives and struggles need to be made visible in order to articulate the broader pressures that many academics, marginalized by their backgrounds, experience when they push against the grain or find themselves under assault as part of a hidden curriculum that has a powerful and invisible order of politics. At the same time, my own struggle is not meant to reaffirm the often dystopian nature of the university but to make clear that such spaces are not without their contradictions and that power is never absolute - social and political change is always possible.

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The university is not a prison or simply neoliberal factory. It is a site of contradictions and struggles and in my mind one of the most important struggles taking place in the United States. I wanted to use the interview to explore a number of layers at work in the structuring of the university, while at the same time arguing that intellectuals and students need to fight for higher education as a crucial public good. Moreover, the interview provides a glimpse into how the interaction between the private and the public have informed my role of as a public intellectual in higher education and my attempts to develop an understanding of critical pedagogy as central to the very nature of agency, politics and democracy itself.

Amid the pressures of an institution that is rife with the legacy of cultural elitism, class structures, racism and repression, the interview provides an archive and a narrative of critique and possibility, despair and hope, and a glimpse into a particular kind of memory work that illuminates past struggles and the problems of a new historical conjuncture as well as what it means to address them.  This interview was particularly aimed at those working-class academics and young people who are presently struggling within higher education, unsure of their role, refusing to be defined by their deficits, and trying to find the courage to make a difference in their roles as scholars, teachers and researchers.

What can educators and others concerned about the future of higher education do to make sure it is not colonized by corporate and other antidemocratic interests?

First, educators and others need to figure out how to defend more vigorously higher education as a public good and how central it is in producing the formative culture necessary to educate young people to be critical and engaged agents willing to fight to deepen and expand the promises of a substantive democracy.


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