Sunday, November 16, 2014

Henry Giroux - Higher Education and New Brutalism

Across the globe, a new historical conjuncture is emerging in which the attacks on higher education as a democratic institution and on dissident public voices in general - whether journalists, whistleblowers or academics - are intensifying with sobering consequences. The attempts to punish prominent academics such as Ward Churchill, Steven Salaita and others are matched by an equally vicious assault on whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden, and journalists such as James Risen. (1) Under the aegis of the national surveillance-security-secrecy state, it becomes difficult to separate the war on whistleblowers and journalists from the war on higher education - the institutions responsible for safeguarding and sustaining critical theory and engaged citizenship. (1a)
Marina Warner has rightly called these assaults on higher education, "the new brutalism in academia." (2) 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 in many countries is more brazen and arrogant than anything we have seen in the past and its presence is now felt in a diverse number of repressive regimes. For instance, the authoritarian nature of neoliberalism and its threat to higher education as a democratic public sphere was on full display recently when the multi-millionaire and Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, told pro-democracy protesters that "allowing his successors to be chosen in open elections based on who won the greatest number of votes was unacceptable in part because it risked giving poorer residents a dominant voice in politics." (3)
Offering an unyielding defense for China's authoritarian political system, he argued that any candidate that might succeed him "must be screened by a 'broadly representative' nominating committee, which would insulate Hong Kong's next chief executive from popular pressure to create social provisions and allow the government to implement more business-friendly policies to address economic" issues. (4) This is not just an attack on political liberty but also an attack on dissent, critical education and public institutions that might exercise a democratizing influence on the nation. In this case the autonomy of institutions such as higher education are threatened as much by corporate interests as by the repressive policies and practices of the state.
The hidden notion of politics that fuels this market-driven ideology also informs a more Western-style form of neoliberalism in which the autonomy of democratizing institutions are under assault not only by the state, but also by the ultra-rich, bankers, hedge fund managers and the corporate elite. In this case, corporate sovereignty has replaced traditional state modes of governance and now powerful corporate elites have taken on the role of pathologizing and undermining the common good. As South African Nobel Prize winner in literature J.M. Coetzee points out, the new power elite "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." (5)
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 determined by consumer demand and governance is based on the Walmart model of labor 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 and opening up of universities that reached a highpoint in the 1960s all across the globe. In the last 40 years, the assault on the university as a center of critique and democratization has intensified, just as the reach of this assault has expanded to include intellectuals, campus protesters, an expanding number of students of color and the critical formative cultures that provide the foundation for a substantive democracy. (6)
In the United States and England, in particular, the ideal of the university as a vital public good no longer fits into a revamped discourse of progress, largely defined in terms of economic growth. Under the onslaught of a merciless and savage financialization of society that has spread since the 1980s, the concept of social progress has all but disappeared amid the ideological onslaught of a crude, market-driven fundamentalism that promises instant gratification, consumption and immediate financial gain. If dissident intellectuals were the subjects of right-wing attacks in the past, the range and extent of the attack on higher education has widened and become more insidious. As Ellen Schrecker succinctly notes:
Today the entire enterprise of higher education, not just its dissident professors, is under attack, both internally and externally. The financial challenges are obvious, as are the political ones. Less obvious, however, are the structural changes that have transformed the very nature of American higher education. In reacting to the economic insecurities of the past forty years, the nation's colleges and universities have adopted corporate practices that degrade undergraduate instruction, marginalize faculty members, and threaten the very mission of the academy as an institution devoted to the common good. (7)
Memories of the university as a citadel of democratic learning have been replaced by a university eager to define itself largely as an adjunct of corporate power. Civic freedom has been reduced to the notion of consumption, education has been reduced to a form of training, and agency has been narrowed to the consumer logic of choice legitimated by a narrow belief in defining one's goals almost entirely around self-interests rather than shared responsibilities of democratic sociability.
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 in terms that mimic market-based ideologies, modes of governance and neoliberal policies, the questions that should be asked at this crucial time in US history concern how the mission of the university might be better understood with respect to both developing and 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 investor interests 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?" (8)
With the advance of a savage form of casino capitalism and its dreamworlds of consumption, privatization and deregulation, democratic values and social protections are at risk, as are the civic and formative cultures that make such values and protections intelligible and consequential to a sustainable democratic society. As public spheres, once enlivened by broad engagements with common concerns, are being transformed into "spectacular spaces of consumption" and financial looting, the flight from mutual obligations and social responsibilities strengthens and has resulted not only in a devaluing of public life and the common good, but also in a crisis of the radical imagination, especially in terms of rethinking the purpose, meaning and value of politics itself. (9)
Moreover, not only have academic fields become financialized, but so has time and space. Students now labor under time constraints marked by the speeding up of time to pay off debts, and the choosing of spaces and spheres of labor that offer quick returns - all done in the name of an indentured form of citizenship predicated on consuming and going into debt. And the consequences far exceed the more volatile examples of the violence waged by police on student protesters. Another index of such a crisis, as Mike Davis points out, is that we live in an era in which there is a supersaturation of corruption, cruelty and violence "that fails any longer to outrage or even interest." (10)
Moral outrage has been replaced by the shouting and screaming that is symptomatic of talk radio and television shows whose purpose is to replace critical dialogue with a cartoonish spectacle in which evidence and argument dissolve in opinions expressed in deafening volume. This type of celebrated illiteracy finds its counterpart in university commencement speeches often delivered by business icons such as Bill Gates, or more problematically, celebrities who confirm the triumph of anti-intellectualist consumerism over thoughtfulness, social responsibility and the ethical imagination. Rarely are students in such commencements exposed to writers, journalists, artists and other cultural workers who believe in the public good, fight against injustices and dare at the risk of their jobs, and sometimes their lives, to hold power accountable.
Needless to say, the crisis of higher education is about much more than a crisis of funding, an assault on dissent, the emergence of a deep-seated anti-intellectualism or its service to the financial elite; it is also about a crisis of memory, agency and politics. What Mike Davis is suggesting is that politics has been emptied out of its political, moral and ethical registers - stripped down to a machine of social and political death for which 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 mimics Wall Street.
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 cruelty. The United States is sullied 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. Academics who speak out against corruption and injustice are publicly demeaned and often lose their jobs. At the same time, the Obama administration criminalizes public servants who expose unethical behavior, the violation of civil liberties and corruption.
One egregious and symptomatic case reported by Morris Berman took place in 2011 when "environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for his repeated declaration that environmental protection required civil, i.e., nonviolent disobedience." (11) As Berman points out, one wonders if the judge that sentenced DeChristopher to prison "would also have put Rosa Parks and Mahatma Ghandi in jail, had he been around during their lifetimes." (12) If democratic political life is emptied out by the rise of the national security apparatus, the increasing criminalization of dissent and the ongoing militarization of everyday life, it is equally devalued and threatened by modes of public pedagogy, circulating in Fox News, for example, that trade in lies, ignorance and a full-fledged attack on reason and critical thought.
In this instance, the new barbarism produces and sanctions a civic illiteracy and retrograde consumer consciousness in which students are taught to mimic the economic success of alleged "brands," such as the reality TV star, Kim Kardashian. Her celebrity is promoted around a kind of idiocy, as exemplified in the publicity surrounding the publication of her new book, Selfish, the unique selling feature of which is that it contains 2,000 selfies. The challenge for higher education in this debacle goes beyond refusing to produce modes of agency that embrace this kind of deadly anti-intellectualism and rabid individualism, but to enable students to critically interrogate what stands for public engagement, and how this debased mode of being in the world gains prominence in the public sphere.
More importantly, what obligation does a university have to teach students to judge the character of their society not by the lives of celebrities, new technologies or the endless production of needless consumer goods, but by its intellect, reason, compassion for the poor, social investment in young people and its willingness to provide economic support and social provisions for all, including those marginalized by race, class, gender and sexual orientation? How we treat those considered vulnerable says much more about the state of a democratic society and the institutions that support it than how we treat the rich, celebrities and those who either trivialize democracy or intentionally undermine it for their own benefit. There is no way to escape the relationship between education and power, pedagogy and social justice, knowledge and the production of the ethical and civic imagination. These neoliberal agendas have sought ways to mystify and undermine these connections.
As the corporatization of higher education intensifies, there is little talk in this view of higher education about the history and value of shared governance between faculty and administrators, nor of educating students as critical citizens rather than potential employees of Walmart. There are few attempts to affirm faculty as scholars and public intellectuals who have a measure of autonomy and power. Instead, faculty members are defined less as intellectuals than as technicians and grant writers, or they are punished for raising their voices against various injustices. Students fare no better in this debased form of education and are treated as either clients, consumers or restless children in need of high-energy entertainment - as was made clear in the 2012 Penn State scandal and the ever increasing football scandals at major universities, where testosterone fueled entertainment is given a higher priority than substantive teaching and learning - to say nothing of student safety and protection.
Precious resources are now wasted by universities intent on building football stadiums, student dorms that mimic resort hotels, and other amenities that signal the Disneyification of higher education for students and the Walmartification of labor relations for faculty. For instance, High Point University seeks to attract students with its "first-run movie theater, a steakhouse, and dorms with plasma-screen TVs and outdoor hot tubs." (13) Such modes of education do not foster a sense of organized responsibility fundamental to a democracy. Instead, they encourage what might be called a sense of organized irresponsibility - a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism and civic corruption at the heart of a debased politics of consumption, finance and privatization. When one combines the university as a Disneyfied entertainment center with labor practices that degrade and exploit faculty the result is what Terry Eagleton recently called the "death of universities as centers of critique." (14)
Governance under higher education is being stripped of any viable democratic vision. In the United States, college presidents pride themselves on defining their role almost entirely in a vocabulary that mimics the language of Wall Street and hedge fund managers. With few exceptions, they are praised as fundraisers but rarely acknowledged for the quality of their ideas. Moreover, trustees have not only assumed more power in higher education, but are largely drawn from the ranks of business, and, yet as in the Steven Salaita case, are making judgments about faculty that they are unqualified to make.
For those of us who believe that education is more than an extension of the business world marked by a new brutalism, it is crucial to 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, supportive 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... Read more: