Friday, May 13, 2016

A University Education Must Transcend Neoliberal Market Dogma

The Geophysical Institute - Fairbanks, site of cutting -edge research in space physics, aeronomy and atmospheric sciences. It is associated with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

In his WSJ piece, 'What Is A University For?', Wesleyan President Michael Roth examines two recent books: 'Wisdom's Workshop-  The Rise of the Modern University' by James Axtell, and 'Toward A More Perfect University' by Jonathan R. Cole to attempt to get a better perspective on the role of the university in the modern setting.

In the former text, we learn of the medieval origins of the university with the need of the Catholic Church for more men with advanced training in philosophy, mathematics and law. Twelfth century Arab scholars in Spain then inspired a modern rethinking leading to new specialties and what we have come to see as the forerunners of modern universities.

Eventually, by the late 19th century the university would arrive in the U.S. as a center of inquiry wherein specialized published research set the modern educational institution apart from mere public opinion, religion and government, But even at this time, university students were mostly wealthy and white. A university education was viewed as the privilege of the few not the right of the multitudes.  The masses, indeed, were believed to be incapable of exercising the intellectual heft needed to pursue research of any kind.

Ultimately, however, that had to change if universities were to continue to exist amongst a burgeoning population from which money was needed to actually fund its research - and development. And so the university's purpose had evolved from educating clergy to educating citizens and in the process advancing knowledge through research.

All through this transition Prof. Axtell vigorously rejects the caricature that professors are simply detached academics with their heads in the clouds That is dismissed on its face as one appreciates the evidence for the impact of university research in fields as diverse as medical, military, scientific and commercial innovations. (The Geophysical Institute (see image), for example, sponsored research to support the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, as it is currently sponsoring HAARP research - as well as climate research, now.)

By contrast, Cole writing in "the form of a legal draft" focuses his examination on regulation imposed by Washington on universities and the need to restore trust between the public, the government and higher education.  Cole especially wants the prestigious universities to begin playing more of a role in secondary education - in order to model the sort of preparation needed for advanced work in assorted disciplines.

Dr. Cole also warns that cynicism and misunderstanding could so erode support for basic research that funding and freedom of inquiry will break down. But many believe this is already happening under the impetus of a reckless Neoliberalism.

For example, blogger and professor Henry Giroux has noted:

"Many see higher education are "dangerous" because its facilities hold the potential to serve as laboratories for democracy where students learn to think critically. Teachers are threatening because they refuse to conflate education with training or treat schools as if they were car dealerships. Many educators have made it clear that they regard teaching for the test and defining accountability only in numerical terms as acts that dull the mind and kill the spirit of students. Such repressive requirements undermine the ability of teachers to be creative, engage with the communities in which they work and teach in order to make knowledge critical and transformative. The claim that we have too many bad teachers is too often a ruse to hide bad policies and to unleash assaults on public schools by corporate-driven ideologues and hedge fund managers who view schools strictly as investment opportunities for big profits."

None of this, however, is treated by either of the two authors cited by Roth, including the possibility that Neoliberal incursion into academia and fear of becoming a "laboratory for  democracy"  may have led to the explosion in adjunct faculty. These are staff with no defined or permanent positions, who must cobble together a job profile based on teaching multiple courses, often at different venues. In addition, many are on food stamps because they simply can't accumulate enough earnings to forge a decent living. See e.g.

As noted in the above piece, half of all professors in the country are currently "contingent" faculty and the chance your kid will have one teaching him/her is at least 3 out of 4.  The trend also is for universities to keep on the  Neoliberal arc spending more and more on plant and amenities - including fancy frill dorms - and less on the teaching staff. At least those who aren't bringing in research grants.

For others- including most non-tenured staff and adjuncts -  disrespect and disdain often rule, such as for one prof at Texas A&M, Irwin Horowitz who  told KPRC the class was so bad he needed security guards in the room, adding:

"Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' [been] called a 'fucking moron' to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught in fights between students,"

Could the prof be lying or exaggerating? Making a "mountain out of a molehill"? I doubt it. For the relatively brief time of my exposure to American higher education, I knew most of the students didn't belong there. They entered the university unprepared from top to bottom, lacking basic skills in numeracy as well as literacy - never mind applying basic scientific principles.  

Truthfully, the only profs remaining who have any fun are those whose work is based 90 percent or more on research, not teaching. So they needn't worry about having to seize a cellphone (as one angry prof did at Caltech), and hurling it against the chalkboard in frustration.

Meanwhile, Prof. Giroux observes:

"Neoliberal education is increasingly expressed in terms of austerity measures and market-driven ideologies that undermine any notion of the imagination, reduce faculty to an army of indentured labor and burden students with either a mind-numbing education or enormous crippling debt or both. If faculty and students do not resist this assault, they will no longer have any control over the conditions of their labor, and the institutions of public and higher education will further degenerate into a crude adjunct of the corporation and financial elite."

As Prof. Irwin Horowitz' experience shows, the indentured servitude degradation of too many faculty is already occurring. Collective self-delusion will only go so far in the absence of an education system that offers a space for critical learning and dissent, and functions as a laboratory for democracy. There is a tendency to forget in an age dominated by the neoliberal celebration of self-interest and unchecked individualism that public goods matter, that critical thinking is essential to an informed public and that education at the very least should provide students with the capacity to display a fierce energy of outrage and genuine hope for a better world.

Bu as Roth observes:  "a critical education has the capacity to do more. It also has the power not only to prevent justice from going dead in ourselves and the larger society."

Sadly, Bernie Sanders' efforts to extend social justice in the larger society (including by proposing free public university tuition) has often been met with neglect (by the media) if not outright ridicule. This alone shows that  - college education or not - before we can become a truly educated people we need to recognize the ways in which the corporate media behemoth too often undermines public education. Else, as Giroux warns: "our institutions of public and higher education will further degenerate into a crude adjunct of the corporation and financial elite."

We simply can't afford that and remain a functioning  democracy. To that end, the citizen must always remain better educated - including via use of higher level critical thinking skills- than the corporate media environment in which he finds himself. That, to me, is the real test of an education - university or not.

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