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Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University

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

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

In a dystopian society, utopian thought becomes sterile, and paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, thinking becomes an act of utter stupidity.  Anti-public intellectuals now define the larger cultural landscape, all too willing to flaunt co-option and reap the rewards of venting insults at their assigned opponents while being reduced to the status of paid servants of powerful economic interests. But the problem is not simply with the rise of a right-wing cultural apparatus dedicated to preserving the power and wealth of the rich and corporate elite. As Stuart Hall recently remarked, the state of progressive thought is also in jeopardy in that, as he puts it, “The left is in trouble. It’s not got any ideas, it’s not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore, it’s got no vision. It just takes the temperature . . . It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.” Of course, Hall is not suggesting the left has no ideas to speak of. He is suggesting that such ideas are removed from the larger issue of what it means to address education and the production and reception of meaningful ideas as a mode of pedagogy that is central to politics itself.

The issue of politics being educative, of recognizing that matters of pedagogy, subjectivity and consciousness are at the heart of political and moral concerns, should not be lost on academics. Nor should the relevance of education being at the heart of politics be lost on those of us concerned about inviting the public back into higher education and rethinking the purpose and meaning of higher education itself. Democracy places civic demands upon its citizens, and such demands point to the necessity of an education that is broad-based, critical and supportive of meaningful civic values, participation in self-governance and democratic leadership. Only through such a formative and critical educational culture can students learn how to become individual and social agents, rather than disengaged spectators or uncritical consumers, able both to think otherwise and to act upon civic commitments that “necessitate a reordering of basic power arrangements” fundamental to promoting the common good and producing a strong democracy. This is not a matter of imposing values on education and in our classrooms.  The university and the classroom are already defined through power-laden discourses and a myriad of values that are often part of the hidden curriculum of educational politics and pedagogy. A more accurate position would be, as Toni Morrison points out, to take up our responsibility “as citizen/scholars in the university [and] to accept the consequences of our own value-redolent roles.” She continues: “Like it or not, we are paradigms of our own values, advertisements of our own ethics - especially noticeable when we presume to foster ethics-free, value-lite education.”

Dreaming the Impossible

Reclaiming higher education as a democratic public sphere begins with the crucial recognition that education is not solely about job training and the production of ethically challenged entrepreneurial subjects, but also about matters of civic engagement, critical thinking, civic literacy and the capacity for democratic agency, action and change. It is also inextricably connected to the related issues of power, inclusion, and social responsibility. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized clearly that when matters of social responsibility are removed from matters of agency and politics, democracy itself is diminished. He writes:


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When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society.

If young people are to develop a deep respect for others, a keen sense of social responsibility, as well as an informed notion of civic engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as the cultural, political and moral force that provides the knowledge, values and social relations to make such democratic practices possible. Central to such a challenge is the need to position intellectual practice “as part of an intricate web of morality, rigor and responsibility” that enables academics to speak with conviction, enter the public sphere to address important social problems, and demonstrate alternative models for bridging the gap between higher education and the broader society. Connective ties are crucial in that it is essential to develop intellectual practices that are collegial rather than competitive, refuse the instrumentality and privileged isolation of the academy, link critical thought to a profound impatience with the status quo, and connect human agency to the idea of social responsibility and the politics of possibility.

Increasingly, as universities are shaped by an audit culture, the call to be objective and impartial, whatever one’s intentions, can easily echo what George Orwell called the official truth or the establishment point of view. Lacking a self-consciously democratic political focus, teachers are often reduced, or reduce themselves, to the role of a technician or functionary engaged in formalistic rituals, unconcerned with the disturbing and urgent problems that confront the larger society or the consequences of one’s pedagogical practices and research undertakings. Hiding behind appeals to balance and objectivity, too many scholars refuse to recognize that being committed to something does not cancel out what C. Wright Mills once called hard thinking. Teaching needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom, to a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles and public issues.

In opposition to the instrumental model of teaching, with its conceit of political neutrality and its fetishization of measurement, I argue that academics should combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen. This requires finding ways to connect the practice of classroom teaching with important social problems and the operation of power in the larger society while providing the conditions for students to view themselves as critical agents capable of making those who exercise authority and power answerable for their actions.

Higher education cannot be decoupled from what Jacques Derrida calls a democracy to come, that is, a democracy that must always “be open to the possibility of being contested, of contesting itself, of criticizing and indefinitely improving itself.” Within this project of possibility and impossibility, critical pedagogy must be understood as a deliberately informed and purposeful political and moral practice, as opposed to one that is either doctrinaire, instrumentalized or both. Moreover, a critical pedagogy should also gain part of its momentum in higher education among students who will go back to the schools, churches, synagogues and workplaces to produce new ideas, concepts and critical ways of understanding the world in which young people and adults live. This is a notion of intellectual practice and responsibility that refuses the professional neutrality and privileged isolation of the academy.  It also affirms a broader vision of learning that links knowledge to the power of self-definition and to the capacities of students to expand the scope of democratic freedoms, particularly those that address the crisis of education, politics, and the social as part and parcel of the crisis of democracy itself.

In order for critical pedagogy, dialogue and thought to have real effects, they must advocate that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live. This is a commitment we heard articulated by the brave students who fought tuition hikes and the destruction of civil liberties and social provisions in Quebec and to a lesser degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  If educators are to function as public intellectuals, they need to listen to young people who are producing a new language in order to talk about inequality and power relations, attempting to create alternative democratic public spaces, rethinking the very nature of politics, and asking serious questions about what democracy is and why it no longer exists in many neoliberal societies. These young people who are protesting the 1% recognize that they have been written out of the discourses of justice, equality and democracy and are not only resisting how neoliberalism has made them expendable, they are arguing for a collective future very different from the one that is on display in the current political and economic systems in which they feel trapped.  These brave youth are insisting that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do counts in their struggle to unlearn dominating privileges, productively reconstruct their relations with others, and transform, when necessary, the world around them.

Although there are still a number of academics such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, John Rawlston Saul, Bill McKibben, Germaine Greer and Cornel West who function as public intellectuals, they are often shut out of the mainstream media or characterized as marginal, unintelligible, and sometimes as unpatriotic figures.  At the same time, many academics find themselves laboring under horrendous working conditions that either don’t allow them to write in a theoretically rigorous and accessible manner for the public because they do not have time - given the often intensive teaching demands of part-time academics and increasingly of full-time, non-tenured academics as well. Or they retreat into a kind of theoreticism in which theory becomes lifeless, detached from any larger project or the realm of worldly issues.  In this instance, the notion of theory as a resource, if not theoretical rigor itself, are transformed into a badge of academic cleverness shorn of the possibility of advancing thought within the academy or reaching a larger audience outside of their academic disciplines.

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