The Conservative Critique of Higher Education Misses the Mark

Prius Politics -- Seen at a campus near you!
Prius Politics — Seen at a campus near you!

W.J. Astore

I have conservative friends (Yes, I do!) who express disfavor with higher education.  They see higher ed as being in lockstep with liberal/leftist agendas.  Things like gay marriage, aggressive feminism, multiculturalism, and diversity that focuses not on wide-ranging political views but on the politics of gender and race.  They further see higher ed as being unfriendly to conservatives, hostile to organized religion (especially Christianity), and intolerant of alternative views that challenge leftist shibboleths.

There’s truth to this critique.  I’ve been around enough liberal faculty members to recognize a certain collectivism, often manifested by smug superiority, in their treatment of anyone who challenges their views.  So-called Birkenstock Bolsheviks are hardly immune to prejudice, including the refusal of job interviews or the denial of tenure to conservatives.  Such prejudice is especially galling among faculties that pride themselves on tolerance.

But while conservatives fight loud skirmishes against conformist liberals in higher ed, they ignore real battles of enormous significance.  The middle class in America continues to wither, even as the cost of higher ed spirals ever upwards (Americans now carry more student loan debt than credit card debt); financial and corporate elites continue to gain more power at the expense of the little guy, even in higher ed, which is increasingly obedient to business imperatives; the American empire continues to grow, and the individual rights of Americans continue to atrophy, even as higher ed willingly genuflects before the military-industrial-homeland security complex.

Everywhere in American society, including in higher ed, we see the exercise of power without regard to communal functions.  And most liberals (and conservatives) in higher ed either kowtow to power or hunker down in their own little academic fiefs. 

To liberals in higher ed, the power elites basically say: We’ll give you gay marriage, we’ll give you your left-leaning courses on feminist basket making in the Punjab.  But we reserve real power, the power that translates into money and influence, for ourselves.  Even liberal icons like President Obama are just the multicultural happy face on a power structure that continues to screw the little guy and gal. 

Think about it.  Whether you’re liberal or conservative, do you believe you have any real say in America?  Any real power?  Any real speech?  Compared to financial and corporate elites, who are now citizens and who can outshout you with billions of dollars in political campaign “donations”?

Again, those wine-drinking and cheese-eating liberals in academe, with their smug, Prius- and Volvo-driven politics, may be annoying, but they have no real power except to annoy.

Of course, in some ways this is nothing new.  President Dwight Eisenhower identified part of the problem: the growing domination of militarized corporate agendas in the name of “security.”  What has made it worse is our permanent war footing, which both drives and justifies fascism-lite, and which works to break down the social contract.  Even Ike couldn’t foresee the extent to which Washington and the Congress have become beholden to, and virtually owned by, major corporate and financial interests.

The character Gordon Gekko’s quote of “greed is good” from the movie Wall Street caught the Zeitgeist of the 1980s.  Then in the recent sequel Gekko adds: “Now it seems it’s legal,” a statement as sardonically funny as it is indicative of America’s new 21st century Zeitgeist.

To preserve their power and perks, the rich and powerful use their usual divide and conquer strategy, in which they sic the middling orders on the welfare class.  Look over there!  A lazy welfare mom buying king crab legs using food stamps!  Even as another CEO cashes in his golden parachute for $10 million and another luxury yacht.

The media serve power, the politicians serve money/power, and when politicians leave office, they cash in as well.  It’s all a circle jerk in which the little guy gets hosed.

Colleges and universities, in the meantime, are divided or distracted by identity politics and the usual grievances and petty animosities, even as administrators increasingly align themselves with corporate types, who promise to run a tighter ship while cutting benefits (including health care) to temporary/contingent faculty.

So, my message to my conservative friends is this: Don’t worry about the leftist types in higher ed who get under your skin: they’re just parlor pinks.  They have the power to annoy, and within academe they have a smidgen of authority.  But they have no real power, especially when compared to our corporatist state, to multinationals, to the big banks, Wall Street, and the K Street lobbyists.

If you don’t believe me, if you continue to chew the carpet at midnight, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: When was the last time Prius-driving liberals with their “Coexist” bumper stickers got $700 billion from American taxpayers in the TARP to bail them out?

The Perils of Zombie Education

Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout
Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

Also at Truthout.com

As a history professor with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering teaching at a technical college after 20 years’ service in the US Air Force, I’m sympathetic to education that connects to the world of doing, of making, of providing goods and services to consumers. Yet we must not allow education itself to become a consumable. When education becomes a commodity and students become consumers, the result is zombie education. Often characterized in practice by the mindless munching of digestible bits of disconnected PowerPoint factoids, zombie education leads to more mindless consumption of commodities after graduation, a result consistent with greed-driven capitalism, but not with ideal-driven democracy.

Mindless consumption is bad enough. But zombies are also mindless in political contexts, which is why totalitarian systems work so hard to create them as a preliminary to taking power. Think here of Hannah Arendt’s critique of Adolf Eichmann as a man devoured by the demands of his job (the extermination of the Jews in Europe), a cliché-ridden careerist who was unable to think outside the constraints of Nazi party ideology.

But let’s return to the economic bottom line. In his signature role as Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) describes the latest generation of college graduates as NINJAs (no income, no jobs, no assets). Basically, they’re screwed, he says. This may even be true if you view a college diploma strictly as a passport to a vocation that pays well.

But true education is much more than that. True education is transformative. It’s soul-enriching and soul-engaging. It opens alternative paths to living that don’t begin and end at the workplace. It measures personal fulfillment in ways that aren’t restricted to take-home pay.

Higher education is (or should be) about enriching your life in terms that are not exclusively financial. It’s about the betterment of character and the development of taste. It’s about becoming a savvier citizen whose appreciation of, and dedication to, democracy is keener and more heartfelt.

And that’s precisely why it’s worthy of greater public funding. State and federal funding of higher education must be restored to previous levels precisely because an informed and empowered citizenry is the best guarantor of individual freedoms as well as communal well-being.

Education, in short, is not a commodity – it’s the commonwealth.

But today’s view of education is often narrowly focused on individual profit or vocational training or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), a bias that carries with it class-based strictures. Students are told it’s OK to be selfish but also that their role is to be consumers, not creators; conformists, not dreamers.

Powerful institutions at local, state, and federal levels share this bias. Educators currying favors from business and industry spout bromides about “competitiveness.” Business leaders address graduates and tell them the secrets to success in life are a positive attitude, punctuality and smart clothes.

If we view education as an ephemeral commodity in a world of goods, so too will our students. They’ll lump it together with all the other trivial, product-based, corporate-funded information with which they’re constantly bombarded. Critical thinking? Informed citizenship? Boring. And could you shut up a minute? I need to take this call/send this tweet/update my Facebook.

Staring vacantly into electronic gizmos as they shuffle to and from class, students are already halfway to joining the zombie ranks. Let’s not infect them further with commodity-based zombie education.

What is to be done? History is a guide. Consider the words of John Tyndall, eminent rationalist and promoter of science. In “An Address to Students” in 1868, or 145 years ago, Tyndall opined that:

“The object of [a student’s] education is, or ought to be, to provide wise exercise for his capacities, wise direction for his tendencies, and through this exercise and this direction to furnish his mind with such knowledge as may contribute to the usefulness, the beauty, and the nobleness of his life.”

Of course, back then such an education was reserved for young men. We congratulate ourselves today for including the “her” with the “his,” of promoting “diversity,” usually defined in racial or gender or ethnic terms.

But what about the diversity of a college education that embraces, not just hardheaded utility or the politics of identity, but ideals about the beauty and nobility of life? What about the fostering of judgment, the ability to go beyond prefabricated, binary thought processes of ideology to a form of thinking that can assess the value and significance of events, situations, and choices on their own terms?

But zombies don’t care about beauty or nobility. They’re not worried about making judgments, especially moral ones. All they want is to consume. Defined by their appetite, they are hollow people, easily led – and easily misled.

As long as we market education as a consumable, the zombies will come. They may even find ways to pay their tuition. Just don’t expect them to de-zombify upon graduation. Just don’t expect them to become noble citizens inspired by, and willing to stand up for, the beauty of true democracy.

W.J. Astore