12 Theses on Education in the Age of Neoliberalism and Terrorism
This excerpt from the book “Neoliberalism, Education, Terrorism: Contemporary Dialogues,” by Paradigm Publishers, first appeared online at Truthout.
1. Neoliberalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of progressive education in the United States.
The goal of neoliberal education policies is not to improve education, but rather to increase the profits of private corporations. Profit-driven models for education directly contrast the goals of progressive educators. The goal of progressive education is to educate students to be productive participants in democratic culture and to engage actively in critical citizenship. Such goals are not supported by neoliberal educational policy mainstays such as teaching to the test and standardized testing. Because neoliberal education policy tends to be data-driven it works against the development of a student’s ability to think critically, thereby undermining the formative culture and values necessary for a democratic society. As long as the United States continues to view educational policy and practice through the lens of market-based values, there is little hope that progressive education, with its aim of educating students for critical citizenship and social and economic justice, will survive.
2. The war on terror and the discourse on terrorism have intensified the militarization of education.
The military–industrial complex should not be the driving force of education in the United States. However, the reaction to the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, has become yet another excuse to allow the military-academic complex to drive United States educational policies, practices, and funding. Not only has funding been diverted from public education to support the war on terror, but there has also been a push to understand America and the world in a way that supports American imperial ambitions. The militarization of education encourages the rationalization of state-sanctioned violence as a social and political value and supports educational practices that validate this violence. The celebration of war as a sign of power and knowledge by the military-industrial complex obliterates the democratic values of equality, public debate of political problems, and respect for diversity. The militarized society eschews reasoned political resolutions to public problems in favor of eradication of the designated enemy/other. Hence, the war on terror is a war on democracy, difference, and thinking. Critical citizenship and democratic culture as the major goals of education cannot survive in a culture dominated by extreme fear and a war waged against an emotion, namely, terror.
3. The humanities are jeopardized by the rise of neoliberal educational policies and the discourse on terrorism.
Since 9/11 the humanities have suffered major defunding across institutions of higher learning. These cuts have been justified by arguments claiming the polemical (or biased) nature of humanities education – arguments aimed at questioning the value of humanities education. Consequently, the humanities have been the hardest hit among the disciplines in the defunding of higher education despite the fact that both the argument that humanities work is politically biased and that it offers students no value have been countered repeatedly by faculty and administrators. The impact of these cuts, though, has dire consequences for the development of a thriving democratic culture because humanities education teaches students the complex history of human interaction, conflict, and creativity while also encouraging students to develop their ability to critically analyze these developments. In short, the humanities teaches students to read and write about the world, a skill that is ever more necessary in a moment of worldwide crisis. It is unsurprising, then, that the humanities have suffered since 9/11 and that there has been a neoliberal turn in higher education, because the humanities is the one place in higher education that can teach students to question the cult of the market and the military.
4. Cultural Studies has been a major target of the attacks on higher education.
One of the major disciplinary accomplishments of the past twenty years is the institutionalization of cultural studies in the academy. Areas of critical inquiry such as gender studies, race studies, sexuality studies, disability studies, and many others would not be possible were it not for the emergence in the 1990s of cultural studies as a disciplinary mainstay in the academy. Area studies allow interdisciplinary inquiry into the formation of a wide variety of aspects of culture. However, neoliberal imperialism has created barriers to cultural and area studies by encouraging uncritical defense of the United States as the global center of all that is good and allegedly democratic. As a result, emerging area studies such as Middle-Eastern studies have become appropriated by the military-industrial complexes such as the Department of Homeland Security, and foreign language studies are supported primarily on the basis of their ability to provide intelligence for government agencies. Furthermore, the move by the state of Arizona to criminalize ethnic studies demonstrates the way that the neoliberal cult of the individual has worked in the post-9/11 atmosphere of xenophobic fear to deter the public from developing notions of solidarity and community. Arizona’s HB 2281 prohibits any courses or classes that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Thus the continuation of the discourse on terrorism and neoliberal educational policies threatens to severely curtail the development of cultural and area studies in the academy. As well, the application of market logic to all aspects of public and not-for-profit colleges and universities has resulted in the vocationalization of higher education, the direct involvement of corporations in designing programs, and the eradication of programs that are not seen as directly contributing to corporate profits and corporate jobs.
5. Educational innovation is not supported by neoliberal approaches to education.
Experimentation in the classroom is grounded in a critical pedagogy that values an open-ended, dialogical, approach to education. The classroom in this vision of educational praxis is viewed as a potentially transgressive space wherein students and teacher mutually explore knowledge formations in a playful albeit critically engaged manner. Neoliberal approaches to educational practice shun innovation because these teaching practices attempt to foster autonomous, critically engaged citizens, rather than non-autonomous, fundamentally structured state subjects. Standardized testing, the centerpiece of neoliberal educational practice, is the enemy of educational innovation as are the neoliberal values of cultural isolationism and American exceptionalism. If the future of education involves the belief in and support for democratic culture, then neoliberal educational policies that are directed against educational innovation must be rejected. Technology on its own cannot be understood as providing social and educational innovation. As online learning technologies and educational social networking platforms are rapidly expanded in both K-12 and higher education, these technologies must be used in ways that expand dialogic, critical pedagogical, and democratic values and social relations. Neoliberal approaches to education see such technologies primarily as sources of value – cutting teacher labor costs and expanding revenues regardless of the social, intellectual, and pedagogical effects of reckless technological expansion.
6. The United States public education system will be completely privatized if it continues to operate solely through market-based values.
The privatization of public education means more testing and less learning; more fundamentalist thinking and less critical inquiry; more vouchers and less understanding of education as a public good, and, ultimately, less investment in critical citizenship. If the push for privatization were based on evidence that it promotes a greater sense of civic engagement in students and supports critical inquiry, then the rejection of it would be much more controversial. However, it is based not on evidence but rather on the need to increase profits and support the educational-support-industry market. If the privatization of the public education system is not curtailed soon, there is a very good chance that critical citizenship and civic engagement as key values of the public education system will entirely disappear.
7. Education as a public good that prepares citizens for collective self-governance is compromised by neoliberal educational policies and the war on terror.
Neoliberalism and its formative culture of cruelty and militarization of everyday life, students, and faculty prepares students to support the military-industrial-academic complex. This goes against the notion that education is a public good that prepares citizens to engage in civic decision-making based on democratic principles. Market-based decision-making is less interested in citizens that are self-governing, and more interested in citizens as consumers who are corporately-governed. The war on terror, through its attacks on academic freedom and threats to critical thinking, has made the academy into a site of closed – rather than open – inquiry. The result of neoliberal educational policies and discourse of terrorism is the loss of the university as a democratic public sphere in which intellectuals, educators, students, artists, labor unions, and other social actors and movements can form transnational alliances – as well as the loss of education as a public good.
8. The rise of neoliberalism and the discourse on terrorism brings about a denial of politics.
As higher education is vitally important to any notion of politics, the regulation and control of higher education by the military-industrial complex brings about the erosion of political activity, activism, and difference. The rise of neoliberalism and the discourse on terrorism has appropriated the political Left as much as the Right. This “denial of politics” and political difference paves the way for the rise of authoritarianism and the demise of dissent. It reduces citizens to predicable market forces and facilitates monstrous political subjectivities. In sum, the denial of politics in the rise of neoliberalism and the discourse on terrorism is also the denial of higher education as a progressive, political force.
9. Neoliberal educational policies in consort with the discourse of terrorism promote extreme fear among students and faculty regarding education’s future.
The coming together of neoliberalism with the discourses of terrorism is particularly dangerous to education because it foregrounds the emotion of fear in the educational environment: fear of failing the test, fear of losing funding, fear of teaching the “wrong” topic, fear of saying the “wrong” thing, fear that the future of education is in jeopardy. It is not possible to freely and critically pursue knowledge in an environment permeated by fear. Learning and education should be joyful activities that bring about positive emotions. When the emotional environment of education foregrounds negative emotions like fear and terror, then it is not possible for progressive education to flourish. If the negative emotional environment established by neoliberalism and the discourse on terrorism is not reversed, it will be increasingly difficult to convince students and faculty that education is an emotionally satisfying endeavor.
10. Higher and public education is a public good and not simply a private right.
As part of a generational contract, education must be funded to promote programs and policies that contribute to and expand the common good and the social contract. Neoliberalism promotes education as a mode of training and focuses on technical training while undermining critical thinking and any vestige of knowledge that cannot be commodified, commercialized, and used to produce profits. Neoliberalism creates a culture based on values that enshrine privatization, commodification, the individualization of responsibility, and a survival of the fittest ethic. In contrast, higher education is a crucial democratic public sphere that provides the formative culture necessary to produce civic literacy and critically engaged citizens.
11. Governance structures in higher and public education should not mimic managerial models of corporations and market-driven organizations.
Governing structures should be democratized and organized so as to serve the constituencies they represent – including students, faculty, managers, administrators, and support staff – in ways that contribute to what is distinctive about an institution’s commitment to democratic values, ideals, and social relations. This would suggest not only giving more power to faculty, students, and staff but also eliminating the casualization of academic labor.
12. Education requires public investment.
Higher and public education must be funded so as to reflect both a society’s commitment to equal educational opportunities and its commitment to the deepening and expansion of a formative educational culture that creates the critical individual and social agents capable of governing a democratic society. This means investing less in war and more in education; it means making education free, especially to those who are marginalized by poverty. It means putting in place legislation and policies that tackle inequality in the United States so as to free American society from the casino capitalism that now corrupts politics and privileges a small percentage of the population.