“Across the globe, a new historical conjuncture is emerging in which attacks on higher education as a democratic institution and on dissident public voices in general – whether journalists, whistle blowers, or academics – are intensifying with alarming consequences for both higher education and the formative public spheres that make democracy possible. Hyper-capitalism or market fundamentalism has put higher education in its cross hairs and the result has been the ongoing transformation of higher education into an adjunct of the very rich and powerful corporate interests. Marina Warner has rightly called these assaults on higher education, 'the new brutalism in academia.'[i] It may be worse than she suggests. In fact, the right-wing defense of the neoliberal dismantling of the university as a site of critical inquiry is more brazen and arrogant than anything we have seen in the past.
“What we are witnessing is an attack on universities not because they are failing, but because they are public. This is not just an attack on political liberty but also an attack on dissent, critical education, and any public institution that might exercise a democratizing influence on the nation. In this case the autonomy of institutions such as higher education, particularly public institutions are threatened as much by state politics as by corporate interests. How else to explain in neoliberal societies such as the U.S., U.K. and India the massive defunding of public institutions of higher education, the raising of tuition for students, and the closing of areas of study that do not translate immediately into profits for the corporate sector?
“The hidden notion of politics that fuels this market-driven ideology is on display in a more Western-style form of neoliberalism in which the autonomy of democratizing institutions is under assault not only by the state but also by the rich, bankers, hedge fund managers, and the corporate elite. In this case, corporate sovereignty has replaced traditional state modes of governance that once supported higher education as a public good. That is, it is now mostly powerful corporate elites who despise the common good and who as the South African Nobel Prize winner in literature, JM Coetzee, points out ‘reconceive of themselves as managers of national economies who want to turn universities into training schools equipping young people with the skills 'required by a modern economy.[ii]
“Viewed as a private investment rather than a public good, universities are now construed as spaces where students are valued as human capital, courses are defined by consumer demand, and governance is based on the Walmart model of labour relations. For Coetzee, this attack on higher education, which is not only ideological but also increasingly relies on the repressive, militaristic arm of the punishing state, is a response to the democratization of the university that reached a highpoint in the 1960s all across the globe. In the last twenty years, the assault on the university as a center of critique, but also on intellectuals, student protesters, and the critical formative cultures that provide the foundation for a substantive democracy has only intensified.[iii]
“Coetzee’s defense of education provides an important referent for those of us who believe that the university is nothing if it is not a public trust and social good; that is, a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the civic imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility, and the struggle for justice.
“Rather than defining the mission of the university by mimicking the logic of the market in terms of ideology, governance, and policy, the questions that should be asked at this crucial time in American history might raise the following issues: how might the mission of the university be understood with respect to safeguarding the interests of young people at a time of violence and war, the rise of a rampant anti-intellectualism, the emerging specter of authoritarianism, and the threat of nuclear and ecological devastation? What might it mean to define the university as a public good and democratic public sphere rather than as an institution that has aligned itself with market values and is more attentive to market fluctuations and investors than educating students to be critically engaged citizens? Or, as Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis write: ‘how will we form the next generation of … intellectuals and politicians if young people will never have an opportunity to experience what a non-vulgar, non-pragmatic, non-instrumentalized university is like.[iv]
“As public spheres – once enlivened by broad engagements with common concerns – are being transformed into ‘spectacular spaces of consumption’,[v] financial looting, the flight from mutual obligations and social responsibilities has intensified and resulted in not only a devaluing of public life and the common good, but also a crisis in the radical imagination, especially in terms of the meaning and value of politics itself.[vi]
“What I am suggesting is that the crisis of higher education is about much more than a crisis of funding, an assault on dissent, and a remaking of higher education as another institution designed to serve the increasing financialization of neoliberal driven societies; it is also about a crisis of memory, agency, and the political. As major newspapers all over the country shut down and the media becomes more concentrated in the hands of fewer mega corporations, higher education becomes one of the few sites left where the ideas, attitudes, values, and goals can be taught that enable students to question authority, rethink the nature of their relationship with others in terms of democratic rather than commercial values, and take seriously the impending challenges of developing a global democracy.
“The apostles of predatory capitalism are well aware that no democracy can survive without an informed citizenry, and they implement a range of policies to make sure that higher education will no longer fulfill such a noble civic task. This is evident in the business models imposed on governing structures, defining students as customers, reducing faculty to Wal-Mart workers, imposing punishing accounting models on educators, and expanding the ranks of the managerial class at the expense of the power of faculty.
“As politics is removed from its political, moral, and ethical registers – stripped down to a machine of social and political death for whom the cultivation of the imagination is a hindrance, commerce is the heartbeat of social relations, and the only mode of governance that matters is one that rules Wall Street. Time and space have been privatized, commodified, and stripped of human compassion under the reign of neoliberalism. We live in the age of a new brutalism marked not simply by an indifference to multiple social problems, but also defined by a kind of mad delight in the spectacle and exercise of violence and what the famed film director, Ken Loach, has called 'conscious cruelty.'[vii]
“America is marked by a brutalism that is perfectly consistent with a new kind of barbaric power, one that puts millions of people in prison, subjects an entire generation to a form of indentured citizenship, and strips people of the material and symbolic resources they need to exercise their capacity to live with dignity and justice.
“For those of us who believe that education is more than an extension of the business world and the new brutalism, it is crucial that educators, artists, workers, labour unions, and other cultural workers address a number of issues that connect the university to the larger society while stressing the educative nature of politics as part of a broader effort to create a critical culture, institutions, and a collective movement that supports the connection between critique and action and redefines agency in the service of the practice of freedom and justice. Let me mention just a few…”
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Café Dissensus on September 15, 2016
[iv] Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), p. 139.
[v] Steven Miles, Social Theory in the Real World (Thousand Oaks, Sage, 2001), p. 116.
[vi] Joshua Kurlantzick, Democracy in Retreat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
[vii] Fran Blandy, “Loach film on shame of poverty in Britain moves Cannes to tears,” Yahoo News, May 13, 2016.
Henry A. Giroux is University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His many books include Theory and Resistance in Education (1983), Critical Theory and Educational Practice (1983), Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning (1988), Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education (1992), Living Dangerously: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Culture (1993), Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope Theory, Culture, and Schooling (1997), Impure Acts: The Practical Politics of Cultural Studies (2000), Public Spaces/Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9/11 (2003), Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post Civil Rights Era (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2004), The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (2004), The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (2007), Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (2009), America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (2013), and America’s Addiction to Terrorism (2016).