Monday, March 30, 2015

Chomsky on the Death of American Universities

(Copyright © Flickr / WorCehT)
In a recent issue of Jacobin magazine, scholar, theorist, critic and activist Noam Chomsky, whose work needs no introduction, offers one of the most succinct and powerful critiques of the direction of contemporary universities and colleges that I have read in quite some time: "The Death of American Universities." Much of what Chomsky says here, which is an edited transcript (prepared by Robin J. Sowards) of remarks Chomsky delivered in February to members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, will be familiar to anyone in higher education, as well as any who have experienced--or closely followed--the travails of students and parents, contingent and permanent faculty, and institutions struggling to deal with budgetary cuts and economically unsustainable cost inflation, narrowing educational goals, the imposition of market-based ideologies, the effects of technological shifts, and various forms of anti-intellectualism, some of very long standing as the late Richard Hofstadter, Susan Jacoby, and others have argued persuasively, that have taken root in our contemporary society.

Perhaps the only area he does not touch upon is athletics, a subject he has commented on in the past. But in every other area what he says applies to every institution in the US, including the richest and most elite--think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, etc.--though in some areas, such as renewing a focus on the arts and humanities, feeling the pinch of federal and state cuts, and trustees who are more concerned with how the football team does rather than whether students are receiving the highest quality education for the complex world in which we live, a world which they will help to shape and transform, these institutions are still somewhat insulated. 

But even Chomsky's former home base, MIT, is not immune to the critiques he lodges or challenges he describes (the MIT Sloan School of Management is one of the major incubators of high-level business thinking in the US), and as he always does, he makes sure to broaden his discussion to larger issues in the society, noting how the "precariat" is not just an issue for higher education, but central to contemporary asset-based globalized capitalism. You might quibble with some of his assertions, but in general, I think he gets things very right, and I wish more than anything that upper-level university administrators and leaders, legislators and other public officials, college and university trustees, and members of the media would read this piece without blinders or prejudice, whether they ultimately disagree or not. I see up close what he'd talking about; getting those in positions of power to acknowledge and address what's going on is another matter. 

Here are a few quotes, but do read the entire article.

This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. 
At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more.


In fact, if you look back farther, it goes even deeper than that. If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “the time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt. 
At the liberal end of the spectrum, there’s a book called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki, produced by the Trilateral Commission, an organization of liberal internationalists. The Carter administration was drawn almost entirely from their ranks. They were concerned with what they called “the crisis of democracy” — namely, that there’s too much democracy.


First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. 
These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. 
These are not radical ideas, I should say. They come straight out of classical liberalism. So if you read, for example, John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the classical liberal tradition, he took it for granted that workplaces ought to be managed and controlled by the people who work in them — that’s freedom and democracy. We see the same ideas in the United States. Let’s say you go back to the Knights of Labor; one of their stated aims was “To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system.”

1 comment:

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