"Don't mourn; critique!"
- Joe Hill, had he been a Ph.D.
As I was doing research for my book on student power, I dug through a seemingly endless stack of books, essays, and articles by various scholars of the left, bemoaning the current state of higher education.
- Some took the "corporatization" angle - showing how powerful private interests had hijacked both the operations and fundamental principles of most universities and colleges, while killing tenure positions, raising tuition, and using undergrad and grad students as labor pools to break wages of non-student school employees.
- Others took the "militarization" angle - describing the insidious and deadly relationship between the military-industrial complex and the academy (what Henry A. Giroux creatively appends the "military-industrial-academic complex"); hard research and propaganda, funded by the Pentagon, has been integrated into the academy since World War II and facilitates our empire abroad and oppression at home.
- Still others took the "conservatization" angle - chronicling the various well-funded attempts to tilt university curricula in a more socially, culturally, and economically right wing direction (e.g. David Horowitz, YAF, think-tank-funded "centers" for "liberty" or "western values," etc.).
The more ambitious writers tried to tackle all three in the same text. And, for the most part, these are all entirely valid ways of looking at the current sad state of "higher" education. While a great deal of ink has been spilled formulating a good way of weaving all these assaults together into a larger narrative, there's one common factor between them all that's blindingly obvious: they're all incredibly depressing, disempowering narratives.
I must confess boredom as I reached the end of the fourth ominously-titled book describing how far downhill the American University has gone, how the noble institution of yore has been degraded and vulgarized, and how there's little more than doom and gloom as far as the eye can see.
I get a sense that the writers themselves know how dreadful this genre is to read in any quantity - that's why they devote an inordinate amount of their titles to hopeful add-ons, usually a form of " - and how to take it back" or " - and what we can do about it". But crack open any of them and you'll find what should be the most rigorous and energizing part of the piece turns out to be in the case of a book, half of the final chapter, and in the case of an essay, one or two obligatory paragraphs at the end.
And of that, it's mostly vague paeans to "speaking out" or "organizing" - or, most nauseating of all, "voting." The better ones bring up faculty unionization (rare), and the best ones also bring up student unionization (just about nonexistent).* I've also noticed a worrying tendency to look back to some ethereal "good ol' days" of higher education. The implicit assumption is made that there was some magical era, decades ago, when Universities actually lived up to their mission statements: when they were truly communities of learning; when outside influences were unheard of; when students and professors, hand in hand, boldly pushed the limits of human knowledge and understanding; when the education given prepared one for active participation in democratic society.
As far as I can tell, nothing close to that has ever existed in America. Obedience to the agendas of powerful, outside institutions is embedded firmly in the DNA of higher ed in this country - its pedigree is that of Rockefellers, the Church, and Congress. All had agendas, and made very sure that their schools carried them out.
To be fair, at least they're saying something can be done about the problems in higher education, even if their answers are unsatisfying. Much of what passes for liberal commentary on higher education has the dank air of inevitability, of submission to administrative excuses like "the state of the economy" or the "job market," excuses which are laughably used often word for word in both economic booms and busts.
This is symptomatic of a larger problem with the left: 95% of our output is in the form of describing and assessing what exactly is wrong - with 2% offering concrete solutions and 3% warning why that 2% is all horrible ideas that will lead to disaster. While Michael Albert and his comrades at ZNet are often the ones who say it most loudly, the sentiment has been around for a long time: mere critiques aren't enough. We need to think of, write about, and create alternatives that embody our values.
Often, the dire rhetoric coming out of the left is but a hair's breadth from the power relations described by conspiracy theorists: an enemy so huge, so powerful, and so pervasive that we are always - and will always be - complicit in its continued functioning, and the implication that anything we could muster in opposition would be minuscule and wiped out in an instant. Part of this might come from a desire for attention - the modus operandi of the left publishing industry seems to be: if there's a book out called "Capitalism is Bad But Defeatable," then come out with "Capitalism is Really Bad and Undefeatable."
Thankfully, those on the ground doing actual organizing in education don't wring their hands the way most of that sector's writers do - probably because their hands are busy locking down occupations, knocking on dorm doors, holding megaphones, and signing union cards. Yes, our foes are formidable, but as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, even dragons can be beaten.
When we defend our universities from David Horowitz, or Monsanto, or Lockheed Martin, or the Pentagon, we aren't defending the university as it is. We're defending the university's potential - its potential to live up to our dreams of a liberatory, democratic, and engaged community of learning. And when we do so through the framework of prefigurative politics, we're showing the world that such a school is both possible and worth fighting for.
*One writer who bucks the trend is Marc Bousquet, whose book How the University Works and eponymous blog do a great job not only dissecting the bad, but actively supporting and contributing to those who are fighting for a more just university.