The Crisis of Education as a Public Good

… The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals – Published on Counterpunch, by Henry Giroux, October 8, 2012.

With the advent of Neoliberalism, we have witnessed the production and widespread adoption within many countries of what I want to call the politics of economic Darwinsim. As a theater of cruelty and mode of public pedagogy, economic Darwinism removes economics and markets from the discourse of social obligations and social costs.  The results are all around us ranging from ecological devastation and widespread economic impoverishment to the increasing incarceration of large segments of the population marginalized by race and class. Economics now drives politics, transforming citizens into consumers and compassion into an object of scorn.  The language of rabid individualism and harsh competition now replaces the notion of the public and all forms of solidarity not aligned with market values … //

… Higher Education and the Crisis of Legitimacy:

In the United States, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to low funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the lack of faculty self-governance, all of which not only contradicts the culture and democratic value of higher education but also makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere.  Decreased financial support for higher education stands in sharp contrast to increased support for tax benefits for the rich, big banks, the Defense Budget, and mega corporations.  Rather than enlarge the moral imagination and critical capacities of students, too many universities are now wedded to producing would-be hedge fund managers, depoliticized students,  and creating modes of education that promote a “technically trained docility.”[xi]  Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities are now “pulled or driven principally by vocational, [military], and economic considerations while increasingly removing academic knowledge production from democratic values and projects.”[xii] … //

… Dreaming the Impossible:

Reclaiming higher education as a democratic public sphere begins with the crucial project of challenging, among other things, those market fundamentalists, religious extremists, and rigid ideologues who harbor a deep disdain for critical thought and healthy skepticism, and who look with displeasure upon any form of education that teaches students to read the word and the world critically. The radical imagination in this discourse is viewed as dangerous and a dire threat to political authorities. One striking example of this view was expressed recently by former Senator Rick Santorum who argues that there is no room for intellectuals in the Republican Party. Needless to say, education is not only about issues of work and economics, but also about questions of justice, social freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change, as well as the related issues of power, inclusion, and citizenship. These are educational and political issues, and they should be addressed as part of a broader effort to re-energize the global struggle for social justice and democracy.

If higher education is to characterize itself as a site of critical thinking, collective work, and public service, educators and students will have to redefine the knowledge, skills, research, and intellectual practices currently favored in the university. 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, use the public sphere to address important social problems, and demonstrate alternative models for bridging the gap between higher education and the broader society.  Connective practices are key: it is crucial 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.

Connection also means being openly and deliberately critical and worldly in one’s intellectual work. Increasingly, as universities are shaped by a culture of fear in which dissent is equated with treason, 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 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. In opposition to this model, with its claims to and conceit of political neutrality, 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 the operation of power in the larger society and to provide the conditions for students to view themselves as critical agents capable of making those who exercise authority and power answerable for their actions. Such an intellectual does not train students solely for jobs, but also educates them to question critically the institutions, policies, and values that  shape their lives, relationships to others, and myriad connections to the larger world … //

… The current 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.  A formative culture must be put in place pedagogically and institutionally in a variety of spheres extending from churches and public and higher education to all those cultural apparatuses engaged in the production and circulation of knowledge, desire, identities, and values. Clearly, such efforts need to address the language of democratic revolution rather than the seductive incremental adjustments of liberal reform. This suggest not only calling for a living wage, jobs programs, especially for the young, the democratization of power, economic equality, and a massive shift in funds away from the machinery of war and big banks  but also a social movement that not only engages in critique but makes hope a real possibility by organizing to seize power.  There is no room for failure here because failure would cast us back into the clutches of authoritarianism–that while different from previous historical periods–shares nonetheless the imperative to proliferate violent social formations and a death-dealing blow to the promise of a democracy to come.

Given the urgency of the problems faced by those marginalized by class, race, age, and sexual orientation, I think it is all the more crucial to take seriously the challenge of Derrida’s provocation that “We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only I did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.”[xxxvii]  We may live in dark times as Hannah Arendt reminds us, but history is open and the space of the possible is larger than the one on display.

(full long long text and Notes i to xxxvii).

Links:

Burning the Messenger: The Persecution of Wikileaks, on Counterpunch, by JAMES ROTHENBERG, OCctober 09, 2012.

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