Defending UC?

Here’s a particularly interesting snip from a debate I have been having with Blake Stimson, a UC Davis professor, and others on the iDC list. At stake among other things are the relative merits of publicly funded and autonomous education, which is being called DIY education on the list, particularly in reference to various online schemes which are not all corporate. The entire debate can be found in the archives of the list for the month of September.

–It’s great to sustain the public debate, Blake. It’s the only way to get beyond the usual schiz of promotional confidence and total cynicism.

> I assume that we both agree that the root issue vis-a-vis education today is something like the progressive displacement of socially-minded critical thinking by opportunistic, self-interested calculation and the role this has played in the antidemocrati redistribution of wealth and power that defines our times.

We agree on that!

> I understand you to see bureaucratized higher ed as the bigger cause of this whereas I take the future of DIY higher ed to be more significant. In the 1960s I would have agreed with you that institutions are the problem. Now that the most successful challenges to the Establishment arise from the unholy marriage between Tea Party resentment and Wall Street greed, I think institutions are less of a problem than the larger cultural effort to dismantle them.

But here our analysis diverges, because I think that universities have already been largely repurposed along neoliberal lines. I don’t think UC is public anymore. The ethos of equality does not exist in the system, because the administrators are frankly on the take, the majority of professors are paid off the wage scale and most of teaching is done by adjuncts under vastly unequal conditions. If Schwartz’s analysis is right, there is no public support for undergraduates since their tuition pays for their entire education, while the government, corporate and endowment money goes to sports and research labs. To this extent, “the market” is not exterior to “the institution.” Rather, since the time of Reagan and Clinton you have a powerful and partially completed trend towards a “market institution.” There is a lot of frustration and anger across the board in the face of this situation, and the point is to elevate those sentiments into a constructive leftist and social-democratic critique of that which founds them in reality. I am, by the way, a taker when it comes to names, references, projects elaborating such critique. Without it the left is just nostalgia.

> In the best light, the future of DIY higher ed seems rightfully enough labeled “iTunes U,” with large corporations serving as clearing houses for, say, a progressively defunded and deregulated science curriculum that ranges from biopolitics to evolution to creationism.

Here again we agree. I think the ideal corporate model is functional knowledge piped directly into your brain by networked media without any of that subversive classroom and discussion stuff. As a complement, the traditional upper classes and their more recent imitators have no intention of letting go of the Ivy League schools where more agile and powerful forms of subjectivity can be cultivated.

> Looked at in a poorer light we might imagine future higher ed to be more like the US insurance/healthcare industry now–with market dynamics progressively disenfranchising a growing segment of the population through voucher policies and democratically-minded politicians increasingly vilified for their efforts to provide some minimal measure of equal access. Further, it will surely be significantly harder to fight for any standards of equal access to education because it is less important than healthcare.

This will definitely be the case if the marketization of the state university systems is completed! That’s why I am saying it’s nuts to “defend UC” without a deep critique of what’s already indefensible in it. The grad student/adjunct population has a very sour view of the institution today, largely based on their economic experience doing the majority of the teaching without ever having a career. So the so-called public university is supported on a foundation of seething resentment. Without a simultaneous recognition of the situation the graduate teachers are describing and an effort to campaign against it very actively and at all levels – analysis, department and university politics, activism, state and national politics – there will be no social forces to resist the kind of Tea Party populism that is shown in the sinister Lebed “College Conspiracy” video you linked to, which is worth watching for sure (link here). We do need a critique of neoliberal financialization, which is the target of that video. But we don’t need *their* critique, because it will turn us into morons under the boot of the right-wing oligarchies.

> To repeat for emphasis, I am not saying that DIY initiatives from Wikipedia to many of the projects referred to on this list are not valuable. Nor am I saying that existing higher ed institutions should not be critiqued and transformed. Instead, I am saying that such critical DIY initiative needs to be pursued with a clear sense of larger social, political, and economic interests that circulate through the huge education economy so that it can most effectively pursue its own aims and not be a pawn in someone else’s game.

Here we go! We perfectly agree. However probably I take it a good deal further than you and I’m curious what you and other people may think.

I think we need to create a strong left civil society that can make ideas politically active. This is urgent because the right is doing their version of it, and after the long Reagan and Clintonian transformation of the New Deal institutions, this effort of the right cannot be fought by just defending the eviscerated shells of formerly public institutions. To create a powerful left praxis with only a weak institutional base and no billionaire Koch-brother resources is going to require several things. The creation of intense discursive communities outside the university. The movement of people between universities, critical communities, workplaces and social movements. The forging of a new egalitarian political discourse and a cooperative aesthetics. The creation of supple and resilient networks to link all that. Ultimately, new political platforms based in this expansion of critical civil society and social movements.

It sounds like a lot, but otherwise it looks to me like the writing is on the wall for social democracy, let alone the “communist horizon” that Jodi Dean is talking about. I guess university professors would have to begin by reorienting their research and publishing activities towards areas that have some use value for people outside, while simultaneously elaborating meta-discourses to prove to themselves, first of all, that this is not about populism or the watering down of their subjects, but instead about the creation of a more rich and socially complex form of knowledge. Personally I find that kind of creativity the most passionately interesting one!

further, Brian

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One Response to “Defending UC?”

  1. Defending UC? By Brian Holmes Says:

    [...] From Continental Drift [...]

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