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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 5)

The view of higher education as a democratic public sphere committed to producing young people capable and willing to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, to think of the “world” critically, “to imagine something other than their own well-being,” to serve the public good, take risks and struggle for a substantive democracy has been in a state of acute crisis for the last 30 years. When faculty assume, in this context, their civic responsibility to educate students to think critically, act with conviction and connect what they learn in classrooms to important social issues in the larger society, they are hounded by those who demand “measurable student outcomes,” as if deep learning breaks down into such discrete and quantifiable units.  What do the liberal arts and humanities amount to if they do not teach the practice of freedom, especially at a time when training is substituted for education?  Gayatri Spivak provides a context for this question with her comment:  “Can one insist on the importance of training in [in higher education] in [a] time of legitimized violence?”

In a society that remains troublingly resistant to or incapable of questioning itself, one that celebrates the consumer over the citizen and all too willingly endorses the narrow values and interests of corporate power, the importance of the university as a place of critical learning, dialogue and social justice advocacy becomes all the more imperative.  Moreover, the distinctive role that faculty play in this ongoing pedagogical project of shaping the critical rationalities through which agency is defined and civic literacy and culture produced, along with support for the institutional conditions and relations of power that make them possible, must be defended as part of a broader discourse of excellence, equity, and democracy.

Higher education represents one of the most important sites over which the battle for democracy is being waged. It is the site where the promise of a better future emerges out of those visions and pedagogical practices that combine hope, agency, politics and moral responsibility as part of a broader emancipatory discourse. Academics have a distinct and unique obligation, if not political and ethical responsibility, to make learning relevant to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method, or research specialization. But more importantly, academics as engaged scholars can further the activation of knowledge, passion, values and hope in the service of forms of agency that are crucial to sustaining a democracy in which higher education plays an important civic, critical and pedagogical role.

C. Wright Mills was right in contending that higher education should be considered a “public intelligence apparatus, concerned with public issues and private troubles and with the structural trends of our time underlying them.” He insisted that academics in their roles as public intellectuals ought to transform personal troubles and concerns into social issues and problems open to critique, debate and reason. Matters of translation, connecting private troubles with larger systemic considerations were crucial in helping “the individual become a self-educating [person], who only then would be reasonable and free.” Yet, Mills also believed, rightly, that that criticism is not the only responsibility of public intellectuals. As Archon Fung points out, they can “also join with other citizens to address social problems, aid popular movements and organizations in their efforts to advance justice, and sometimes work with governments “to construct a world that is more just and democratic.”


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Academics as public intellectuals can write for multiple audiences, expand those public spheres, especially the many sites opening up online, to address a range of important social issues. A small and inclusive list would include the relationship between the attack on the social state and the defunding of higher education. Clearly, in any democratic society, education should be viewed as a right, not an entitlement and suggests a reordering of state and federal priorities to make that happen. For instance, the military budget can be cut by two-thirds and the remaining funds can be invested in public and higher education. There is nothing utopian about this demand given the excessive nature of military power in the United States. Addressing this task demands a sustained critique of the militarization of American society and a clear analysis of the damage it has caused both at home and abroad. Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, along with a number of writers such as Andrew Bacevich, have been doing this for years, offering a treasure trove of information that could be easily accessed and used by public intellectuals in and outside of the academy. Relatedly, as Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and others have argued, there is a need for public intellectuals to become part of a broader social movement aimed at dismantling the prison-industrial complex and the punishing state, which drains billions of dollars in funds to put people in jail when such funds could be used to fund public and higher education. The punishing state is a dire threat to both public and higher education and democracy itself. It is the pillar of the authoritarian state, undermining civil liberties, criminalizing a range of social behaviors related to concrete social problems, and intensifying the legacy of Jim Crow against poor minorities of color. The American public does not need more prisons; it needs more schools.

Second, academics, artists, journalists and other cultural workers need to connect the rise of subaltern, part-time labor in both the university and the larger society with the massive inequality in wealth and income that now corrupts every aspect of American politics and society.  Precarity has become a weapon to both exploit adjuncts, part-time workers, and temporary laborers and to suppress dissent by keeping them in a state of fear over losing their jobs. Insecure forms of labor increasingly produce “a feeling of passivity born of despair.” Multinational corporations have abandoned the social contract and any vestige of supporting the social state. They plunder labor and perpetuate the mechanizations of social death whenever they have the chance to accumulate capital.  This issue is not simply about restoring a balance between labor and capital, it is about recognizing a new form of serfdom that kills the spirit as much as it depoliticizes the mind. The new authoritarians do not ride around in tanks, they have their own private jets, they fund right-wing think tanks, lobby for reactionary policies that privatize everything in sight while filling their bank accounts with massive profits. They are the embodiment of a culture of greed, cruelty and disposability.

Third, academics need to fight for the rights of students to get a free education, be given a formidable and critical education not dominated by corporate values, and to have a say in the shaping of their education and what it means to expand and deepen the practice of freedom and democracy. Young people have been left out of the discourse of democracy. They are the new disposables who lack jobs, a decent education, hope and any semblance of a future better than the one their parents inherited. They are a reminder of how finance capital has abandoned any viable vision of the future, including one that would support future generations. This is a mode of politics and capital that eats its own children and throws their fate to the vagaries of the market. If any society is in part judged by how it views and treats its children, American society by all accounts has truly failed in a colossal way and in doing so provides a glimpse of the heartlessness at the core of the new authoritarianism.

Finally, there is a need to oppose the ongoing shift in power relations between faculty and the managerial class.  Too many faculty are now removed from the governing structure of higher education and as a result have been abandoned to the misery of impoverished wages, excessive classes, no health care, and few, if any, social benefits. This is shameful and is not merely an education issue but a deeply political matter, one that must address how neoliberal ideology and policy has imposed on higher education an anti-democratic governing structure that mimics the broader authoritarian forces now threatening the United States.


In conclusion, I want to return to my early reference to the global struggles being waged by many young people. I believe that while it has become more difficult to imagine a democratic future, we have entered a period in which students and disenfranchised youth all over the world are protesting neoliberalism and its instrumentalized pedagogy and politics of disposability. Refusing to remain voiceless and powerless in determining their future, these young people are organizing collectively to create the conditions for societies that refuse to use politics as an act of war and markets as the measure of democracy. And while such struggles are full of contradictions and setbacks, they have opened up a new conversation about politics, poverty, inequality, class warfare and ecological devastation. The ongoing protests in the United States, Canada, Greece and Spain make clear that this is not - indeed, cannot be - only a short-term project for reform, but a political movement that needs to intensify, accompanied by the reclaiming of public spaces, the progressive use of digital technologies, the development of public spheres, the production of new modes of education and the safeguarding of places where democratic expression, new identities and collective hope can be nurtured and mobilized.

Academics, artists, journalists, and other cultural workers can play a crucial role in putting into place the formative cultures, necessary to further such efforts through the production and circulation of the knowledge, values, identities and social relations crucial for such struggles to succeed.  Writing in 1920, H.G. Wells insisted that, “History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” I think Wells got it right but what needs to be acknowledged is that there is more at stake here than the deep responsibilities of academics to defend academic freedom, the tenure system and faculty autonomy, however important. The real issues lie elsewhere and speak to preserving the public character of higher education and recognizing that defending it as a public sphere is essential to the very existence of critical thinking, dissent, dialogue, engaged scholarship and democracy itself. Universities should be subversive in a healthy society, they should push against the grain and give voice to the voiceless, the unmentionable and the whispers of truth that haunt the apostles of unchecked power and wealth. These may be dark times, as Hannah Arendt once warned, but they don’t have to be, and that raises serious questions about what educators are going to do within the current historical climate to make sure that they do not succumb to the authoritarian forces circling the university, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. Resistance is no longer an option, it is a necessity.

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