Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex
Peter McLaren (Editor), Steven Best (Editor), and Anthony J. Nocella, II (Editors)
Revolution By the Book
Neoliberalism and Academia
It was not paranoia that led John Dewey in the 1940s to warn that a corporatization process had begun whereby universities learned to shape and pattern themselves on a business model driven by the need to compete and turn education into a profit-making enterprise. Nor was it delusional when, in 1961, President Eisenhower warned that the “military industrial complex” posed a threat to the balance of powers and to civil liberties. The fusion of warfare, capitalism, science, and technology cannot take place without knowledge, advanced technologies, and a low-cost labor base, such as one finds ready-made in universities and their graduate student labor pools. Where science, engineering, and technology are crucial to capitalist militarism and militarist capitalism, universities form the third leg in a triadic system of postmodern power. It is a telling fact that the US spends more in the military sector than the rest of the world combined.
Consequently, deconstructing fictitious humanist ideals, describing the real goals and imperatives of “higher learning,” and delegitimizing the power systems that actually run universities, many theorists during the last two decades understood that the boundary lines between universities, corporations, and military/warfare/social policing systems were dissolving. They no longer saw three separate, unrelated entities, but rather one gigantic industrial complex. The term “academic-military-industrial complex” is shorthand for the intersection, overlapping, and implosion of universities, the corporate private sector, the Department of Defense and various armed forces services, and the security and regulatory apparatuses of the State—all knotted together in a vast, predatory bureaucratic system developed for social and geopolitical domination.1/2 By the 1990s, certainly, the questioning of scientific epistemology took on a far broader and more consequential term with critical scrutiny of the university institution itself, by charting the transformations of the mission and function of universities in the post-war era. Building on attacks on the politics of knowledge driving university research, a number of radical theorists, such as Stanley Aronowitz, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Sandra Harding, and numerous contributors to this book analyzed how the nobler purposes and missions of universities and institutions of “higher learning” became corrupted and degraded. Hence, a spate of important new critical works emerged deconstructing the mythology of higher education and the academy as an institution.
As capitalism changes, so must education, and the rise of science and technology to dominant “productive forces” in the postindustrial phase of capital transforms education increasingly from a focus on humanities to narrow functional knowledge. The noble functions of higher education such as inculcating critical thinking skills, identities as citizens and members of interdependent communities, and the ability to meaningfully participate in and shape a democratic form of government gave way to reconfiguring the university as a corporation, ideological state apparatus, and technical school for training laborers.
Universities had become part of the “one dimensional society” (Marcuse), they had the potential to devastatingly criticize and overturn in favor of richly educated, highly cultured, autonomous citizens. Increasingly, the humanities and liberal arts were eclipsed by science, chemistry, mathematics, agriculture, geology, engineering, marketing, business, accounting, advertising, and other fields including sports. The economic rationale to increase university profits and functional purpose of producing individuals trained for science, technology, and business had the ideological bonus of homogenizing thought and stifling critical thinking. And under conditions of economic recession such as began to devastate global markets in 2008, universities have to tighten budgets and reduce or eliminate “superfluous” knowledges. Simultaneously, students increasingly turn toward practical realities of careers and economic survival and forego the “luxury” of studying literature, philosophy, or art, fields that regardless are grossly underfunded as they occupy the bottom rung of budgetary priorities. As the 2008–2009 crisis worsened, plunging much of the globe into recession and depression, worried students fall in line with corporate academic policies that reduce or eliminate “superfluous” humanities requirements in order to peddle degrees in marketable careers.
Partly due to economic constraints and partly because of the growing hegemony of technoscience, it is hard to miss the implosion between universities and vocational schools that eliminate liberal arts requirements and do little more than job training and indoctrinating students with capitalist values of competition, individualism, materialism, greed, and so on. Vocational schools such as Phoenix University are themselves corporate behemoths with branches spread throughout the US like fast-food chains. Indeed, on the neoliberal-consumerist model of education, knowledge is nothing but information to be consumed as quickly as possible, a sugary pabulum as injurious to the health of the mind as Whoppers and Big Macs are to the life of the body. In a society organized around work, productivity, and maximal exploitation of labor, no one has time for a satisfying meal let alone a genuine education, and the “slow food” movement ought to be linked to a drive toward a “slow education” that allows students the time and leisure to think and mature as human beings in pursuit of autonomy rather than in the service of capital.
As corporations, universities were interested in buying materials, investing in research and projects, inventing and patenting new technologies or advances in science and medicine, and competing on the marketplace. In fact, by the 1980s and 1990s, universities and society as a whole were becoming increasingly corporatized, marketized, and globalized. Acting like capitalists committed to the tyranny of the bottom line, universities began the cut-and-slash tactics that Reagan took to social programs in the 1980s, for a profitable enterprise cannot have excess costs, and labor expenses must be minimized. The dynamic that led to the restructuring of universities along corporate lines stemmed from aggressive neoliberal policies. The laissez-faire spirit of early capitalism was revived as neoliberalism, in order to dismantle welfare states, trade barriers, environmental regulations, and anything that stood in the way of trade. Universities moved in consort with the social, political, economic, and military systems that were changing the nature of the world through an aggressive neo-imperialism policy that was part and parcel of neoliberal attempts to subjugate the entire world to corporate power and market logic, while hopefully reviving a moribund American Empire.
Following the dominant corporate model, universities initiated a “de-skilling” of labor, and replaced the skilled labor of faculty with technology.3 Compliant with the needs of businesses and an overworked labor force, and updating higher learning for the age of the Internet, universities began to offer “long-distance learning” such that students could earn a degree at home through correspondence, with “teachers” reduced to functionaries who grade quantitative exams, raising the specter of a future university system that dispenses with teachers altogether in favor of computerized grading machines.4 “Increasingly,” Ollman writes, “university life has been organized on the basis of a complex system of tests, grades, and degrees, so that people know exactly where they fit, what they deserve, what has to be done to rise another notch on the scale, and so on. Discounting—as most educators do—their negative effects on scholarship, critical thinking, and collegiality, these practices have succeeded in instilling a new discipline and respect for hierarchy.”5
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