As the school year begins, colleges and universities in North America are doing everything possible to attract students, including making themselves over in the image of a high-end mall or a cool brand name. Some institutions are giving students free Apple iPhones and Internet-capable iPods. Others are building attractive athletic facilities, developing more retail stores on campus, and providing plenty of specialized coffee shops. Some welcome this change as a brilliant market strategy while others believe that any face lift will improve the often stodgy academic image many colleges project.
Even as more and more students are excluded from a decent higher education because of the recession, educators seem less concerned about the plight of poor students than they do about how they can find the right brand to sell themselves to attract new students. But there is more at work here than the development of a new campus aesthetic or a recognition that students are now considered clients who represent an important market niche.
There is also the move on the part of many universities towards embracing market mechanisms as a way of redefining almost every aspect of university life–in spite of the failure and excesses of this system as exemplified in the Bernie Madoff scandal, outrageous executive bonuses, financial corruption, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the corporate greed that caused the current economic recession. Rather than challenge the economic irresponsibility, ecological damage, and human suffering, and culture of cruelty unleashed by free market fundamentalism, higher education appears to be one of its staunchest defenders, uncritically embracing a view of itself based on a market model of the academy.
It seems that few educators have recognized that universities are in need of a moral bailout given that they are embracing the very market values, identities, and social relations that not only perpetuated the cut-throat values that caused the economic crisis, but also put many of them in the dire financial crisis they are currently experiencing. The corporate stranglehold over higher education gets stronger regardless of how devalued market fundamentalism has become during one of the greatest economic crisis the United States has ever experienced. Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities seem less interested in higher learning than in becoming licensed storefronts for brand name corporations–selling space, buildings, and endowed chairs to rich corporate donors. Not surprisingly, students are now referred to as “customers,” while some university presidents even argue that professors be labeled as “academic entrepreneurs.” Instead of using their platforms to address important social issues, university presidents are now called CEOs and are viewed primarily as fund raisers.
In the age of money and profit, academic subjects gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market. Twice as many students major in business studies than in any other major. The liberal arts increasingly appear to be merely ornamental, a dying vestige of an age not dominated by Gilded Age excess and disposability. Whereas the university was once prized as a place where students learned how to be engaged citizens educated in the knowledge, skills, values, and virtues of democracy, today they are trained to be workers and adept consumers. Educational value is now measured according to cost/benefit formulas, and the only rationality that matters is one of economic exchange.
Education is increasingly reduced to a narrow instrumental logic, only recognizable as a form of training, just as teaching is removed from the language of social and moral responsibility, critical imagination, and civic courage. In the age of increasing specializations, pay for grades schemes, excessive instrumentalism, and an increasing contempt for critical thinking, higher education is producing new forms of political and civic illiteracy, turning out students who have little understanding of the complexities of the larger world, unaware of their power as social agents, and removed from those capacities that combine critique and a yearning for social justice, knowledge and social change, learning and a compassion for others. And the outcome can be seen in a growing generation of young people and adults who are barely literate, live in an utterly privatized world, and are either indifferent or complicit with a growing culture of cruelty.
As higher education is transformed into a business or increasingly militarized, young people find themselves on campuses that look more like malls or recruiting stations for the national security state. Moreover, they are increasingly taught by professors who are hired on a contractual basis, have obscene work loads, and can barely make enough money to survive. Tenured faculty members are now called upon to generate grants, establish close partnerships with corporations, and teach courses that have practical value in the marketplace. What was once the hidden curriculum of many universities—the subordination of higher education to corporate values—has now become an open and much celebrated policy of both public and private higher education. There is little in this vision of the university that imagines young people as critical citizens or critical agents, educated to take seriously their role in addressing important social issues and bearing some responsibility for strengthening and deepening the reach of a real and substantive democracy. Addressing education as a democratic endeavour begins with the recognition that higher education is more than an investment opportunity, citizenship is about more than consuming, learning is about more than preparing for a job, and democracy is about more the false choices offered under a rigged corporate state and marketplace.
Higher education may be one of the few sites left in which students learn the knowledge and skills that enable them to not only mediate critically between democratic values and the demands of corporate power, but also to distinguish between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, unbridled individualism that celebrate self-interest, profit making, and greed. Put differently, higher education should neither confuse education with training nor should it suggest that the only obligation of citizenship is consuming.
Higher education is a hard-won democratic achievement and it is time that parents, faculty, students, alumni and concerned citizens reclaim higher education as a fundamental public good rather than merely a training ground for corporate interests, values, and profits. Education is not only about issues of work and economics–as important as these may be, but also about matters of justice, freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change as well as the related issues of power, exclusion, and citizenship. Education at its best is about enabling students to take seriously questions about how they ought to live their lives, uphold the ideals of a just society, learn how to translate personal issues into public considerations, and act upon the promises of a strong democracy. These are educational and political issues and should be addressed as part of a broader concern for renewing the struggle for social justice and democracy. Let’s give our students the education they deserve in a substantive democracy. Schooling offers more than the promise of a decent job, however elusive that has become; more importantly, it offers the promise of a just and democratic society.
HENRY A. GIROUX holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His most recent book is Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan