“Education” and an old Chris Hedges column

Published online 31 March 2009.

This is a diary about Chris Hedges’ column of 3/23, America Is in Need of a Moral Bailout.  Hedges’ column is mostly about universities, which are what concerns me here.  Hedges obliges one to ask as to whether universities have been completely swallowed up by capitalist discipline, and us with them.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Are things really that bad?  What do you think Hedges is so burned about?

I saw this piece first when some joker on Alternet reposted it with the title “Higher Education Gone Wrong: Universities Are Turning into Corporate Drone Factories.”  And then, of course, the comments section over at Alternet is full of potshots at the subtitle: “Unless we take hold of the reigns we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power wielded through naked repression.”  Yeah, the Alternet coypist who reposted Hedges has “reins” misspelled in the imposed title.  Just ignore the Alternet reposting and go directly to Truthdig.

As for the article, it’s of course one of these rants about how bad things have gotten.  Generally, though, its picture of economic life rings true.

The elite, who have hollowed out the democratic system to serve the corporate state, rule through image and presentation. They express indignation at AIG bonuses and empathy with a working class they have spent the last few decades disenfranchising, and make promises to desperate families that they know will never be fulfilled. Once the spotlights go on they read their lines with appropriate emotion. Once the lights go off, they make sure Goldman Sachs and a host of other large corporations have the hundreds of billions of dollars in losses they incurred playing casino capitalism repaid with taxpayer money.

That part of Hedges’ piece I’m not so concerned about.  I can get this picture of reality from a dozen other accomplished authors.  What I do want to know, however, is whether Hedges’ view of education is in any way accurate:

We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered.

I have three immediate emotional reactions to Hedges’ piece:

  1. I’m afraid that it’s true
  1. I’m concerned that my bias in favor of Hedges’ diagnosis of our society is due to my current lack of academic employment
  1. I’m questioning what-all leads Hedges to think this way — is he a humanist or just a snob?

Certainly Hedges’ picture of university life is exaggerated.  There are doubtless little oases for humanistic thinkers here and there in America — tell me when you find one.  Nevertheless his arguments hit home, and so I am left wondering what kind of future is there for people such as myself.  Having read Hedges’ blog entry thoroughly, as well as some of the texts to which it refers, I think I can summarize it thusly: the academy has succumbed to a new sort of “capitalist discipline” of academic labor, in which the corporate form which predominates in the world outside the university has thoroughly restructured the world inside.  Thus Hedges argues that life both inside and outside of universities has become tortured by the amorality of (capitalist) business.

Hedges’ moral argument about the university is this, then: that element of academic thought which made the university distinctive, the humanities, which supposedly existed in a cultural space outside of capitalist discipline, is being lost.  College participation in the humanities is supposedly imploding, as is (according to Hedges) the ethical questioning which can be found among those who understand their academic content.  (Agree?  Disagree?)

*****

A couple of the supporting documents for Hedges’ argument deserve some attention.  Henry Giroux’s The University In Chains is an extended indictment of the role of the military, corporations, and the Right in distorting the missions of educational institutions.  Giroux’s critique, however, seems to hangs on the wish that “higher education is about more than job preparation and consciousness-raising; it is also about imagining different futures and politics as a form of intervention into public life.” (104)  Is that what higher education is for?  Says who?  Says him?

Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors is, however, a really impressive book.  Donoghue shows how the disappearance of economic security in the humanities division of the academy (for all but an elite few, tenured under the old dispensation) has created near-universal frustration at the prospects for job advancement, and that the future of the university is in the “for-profit university,” which adopts a strictly-business model which further marginalizes the humanities.  Donoghue’s book is thoroughly documented and organizes its argument as if it were sealing a crypt with humanities scholars entombed within.  It is deserving of a full diary in itself.

Donoghue’s suggestion for what the humanities should do to fight back is instructive:

The imperative to be practical, efficient, and profitable, which I have traced as a strong influence on past and present versions of academia, will be an even stronger force in the future.  This means that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforward face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.  In an effort to stem that tide. humanists have tended to produce one manifesto after another in defense of the intrinsic good of critical thinking.  Instead, I believe that humanists must first use the tools of critical thinking to question the widespread assumptions that efficiency, productivity, and profitability are intrinsically good. (88)

All this stuff is meaningful to me, of course, because I am one of those humanities Ph.D.s who fell through the cracks, and was aced out of the job market because my “administrative adviser” would not recommend me for full-time jobs.  (Everyone else on my committee had written me a recommendation.)  And, no, I’m not a traditional humanities scholar — I ended up in a Department of Communication, buttonholed as a “scholar” in a department full of careerists.  Maybe I’d be better off if I were the perfect replacement for some retiring specialist in English Romanticism, as I’d originally planned; maybe not.  So here I am, ten years after the Ph.D., and I haven’t had a real job for two years.

I have, in short, bit the forbidden apple.  My undergraduate years, at UC Santa Cruz during the early 1980s, were in fact the best years of my life, and, yes, I spent a decade thereafter trying to recreate them.  I had my taste of academic life and, no, I don’t want to give it up.  After all, I’m 47, and my resume is coated with academic jobs and article pubs and appointments to the editorial boards of far-out scholarly publications; it’s not like I’m swamped with job offers to do something else.  I am currently working on a book (which as Donoghue says is the main route to academic hiring).  My net worth is significantly in the negative, since of course you have to pay for everything here in “the States.”

What do the rest of you hangers-on to school think?  Is it as bad as Hedges says it is?  Is world society a juggernaut because nobody bothers to think anymore?

It seems that a lot of Hedges’ argument pivots on the especially crisis-ridden, “late” moment of history in which we live.  After all, as Donoghue points out, the universities have kissed corporate butt before, and have had to submit to withering business-oriented critiques of what they did, especially (as he documents) at the beginning of the 20th century.  If folks like Hedges are especially outraged, could it be because the present moment has that smell and taste of “lateness” to it?  It does seem like our glorious triumphant capitalist world society has gone through an awful lot of history so far, and we still haven’t done all that much to eradicate hunger or poverty or war.  To be sure, we certainly haven’t settled our scores with the natural world.  Isn’t that what abrupt climate change is about?

Our glorious triumphant capitalist world society can’t seem to let go of the idea of social classes, as it still exists for the sake of 793 billionaires while excluding a bottom half which makes less than $2.50/day.  Shouldn’t we have dealt with this some time ago?

Once upon a time, before neoliberal restructuring trashed Michigan and before the most important thing about college life was student loan debt, college was romanticized as a place where you went to learn something, to have a good time, and to ponder the meaning of life.  Sure, that was just a fantasy.  Give it up and enjoy the job search.

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