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?

Yes, Education is about Social Control

Don't ask questions. Don't seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)
Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek answers. Enjoy the spectacle. (Image: Wiki)

W.J. Astore

Education in my sense of liberating and strengthening (making articulate and uncompromising) the intellect is of course antithetical to much of what is going on in our schools and universities, which I would rather refer to by such terms as training, molding, socialization, mystification, memorizing of facts, obfuscation of meaning–all processes designed to produce intelligent citizens who are ready to execute jobs faithfully and not ask any questions about their meaning or purpose or value to fellow human beings.

(Christian Bay, Strategies of Political Emancipation, 1981)

Corporate society takes care of everything.  And all it asks of anyone, all it’s ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions. 

Mr. Bartholomew (played by John Houseman) in Rollerball, 1975

As a professor and lifelong learner, I see education as equal parts empowering and enlightening.  Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and the lamp of learning helps to illuminate our lives.

But is education also about social control?  Sadly, the answer is “yes.”  Education that is simplified and standardized is often little more than indoctrination.  Education that is too regimented, too centralized, too much like a factory, prepares students for a life of unquestioning obedience and unreflective conformity.

Authorities have often been keen to restrict or outlaw forms of knowledge that they see as undermining their privileges and power.  Writing from Australia, Dr Teri Merlyn reminded me that:

There have been very direct, coordinated battles [against knowledge and reformers] – witness the censorship battles over Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’, when you could go to gaol for simply owning a copy, and the 19th Century ‘Church and King’ mobs sent to punish radical writers and publishers by burning down their houses … There are powerful social forces at work that have their self-interest at heart and see what they do in that context.  Witness the great educator of the working class, Hannah Moore, writing to her Bishop at the turn of the 18th Century, assuring him whilst she was teaching these working class girls to read, sufficient for their service duties, they would never learn to write, for that would encourage them to aspire beyond their station.

Education today still largely teaches students to stay within their station.  Today’s focus on vocational education is both salutary and one-dimensional.  Students are told to get degrees as passports to a job.  They’re not told to aspire to be skeptical citizens who dare to question (or even to supplant) authority.

And there’s the rub.  We face difficult, seemingly intractable, problems in the world today.  Global warming.  Fossil fuel dependence.  A widening gap between rich and poor.  A military-industrial-intelligence complex that dominates our foreign policy as well as much of our domestic policy.  Worrisome budget deficits.  Unaffordable health care.  The list goes on.

But our students are not being educated to address these challenges, at least not in any radical way, in the sense of getting to the roots of the problem.

Education, in essence, has largely become training, just another form of careerism.  And the high student debt that many students incur in obtaining their “passport to success” ensures they are essentially indentured servants, forced to keep working to pay off their debt (and often to keep their health care benefits as well).

Even as students incur debt in the process of training for a career, higher education brags most loudly about its close ties to business and industry.  Yet business and industry, as Teri Merlyn notes, “has effectively [outsourced] its responsibility to train its workforce, diverting that cost onto the public purse.  In order to do that, it has infested educational language with its own terminology.  The dominance of the Business Paradigm is now absolute.”

Just as college football is a feeder to the NFL, higher education is increasingly a feeder to business and industry.  It’s a Rollerball world dominated by violent sports and corporate conglomerates.

Education, in short, has lost any sense of higher purpose.  “Adapt to the world as you find it” is both the implicit and explicit message. And whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.

Part of the method is to destroy any sense of class identity among students.  Today, virtually all my students self-identify as being members of the “middle class,” even though many are working class (just as I am a son of factory workers).  In American society, we’ve lumped blue-collar with white-collar jobs, so that now janitors and fast-food workers (for example) think of themselves as middle class.

This is not to denigrate janitors or fast-food workers.  Rather, it’s to highlight the calculated decline of class identity and solidarity in the U.S.  If we’re all middle class, if we’re all bourgeois, why bother uniting in unions to fight for our rights?  If we allegedly inhabit a post-class society of social mobility, education can then ignore ethical and societal questions of fairness to focus on workforce training and professional development.

As my Aussie correspondent, Dr Teri Merlyn, astutely noticed:

“That phenomenon of working class identity is a most unwilling one, so the strategy to co-opt the working class as nominal members of the owning class through the share and property markets was very successful.  One might even suspect this recent ‘economic crisis’ [of 2008] as the ‘owners’ simply taking back what they see as rightfully theirs.”

Put differently, you can’t see you’re being screwed as a worker when you view yourself as an “owner” in your own right.  And when you’re educated to conform, to produce the standard answer, to aspire to a respectable job (with your identity confined to that job), your consciousness will never be raised to challenge the system in any radical way.

In fact, your goal is to become the system, to reap its rewards for yourself, just as those that you now work for have done and are doing.

As we witness uprisings around the world, from Egypt to Greece to Brazil and elsewhere, we should ponder why there are not similar uprisings in the U.S.  Is it because the U.S. really is, pardoning Voltaire, the best of all possible worlds?  Or is it because our educational system immunizes us against any form of “socialism” (a curse word in American politics) or class consciousness?

Education, when it’s about getting the right answer that leads to the right job without ever questioning prevailing authority, becomes a status quo operation in social control.

To recognize that is not to surrender to it.  Rather, it’s to begin to fight it.