Marketeers, Agitators, and the Corporate University

THE KNOWLEDGE FACTORY:Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning.

When protest-smashing politicians hymn the great corporate god, the Market, the scripturally literate recall the economics of the messianic Agitator. To the Agitator, fundraising and the Market were apparently of no great concern. Exceedingly ill-bred in an undistinguished village, he was rude to affluent leaders and lenders (bankers even); and when a rich young man of good family asked for advice, the Agitator told him to sell the ranch, give money to poor folks, and join in agitation. As Texans say, that’s no way to run a ball-club. Incidentally, the market value of the Agitator himself was just thirty pieces of silver, hardly enough to catch the eye of the lowliest fundraiser (and the Agitator didn’t like to see money changing hands in temples).

Bush major, father of today’s born-again candidate for the presidency, gives more moderate advice than the Agitator, who said radical things about education as well as economics. Education is Bush minor’s great concern, and in 1989 Bush major announced that it has four benefits. Prominent among the four beatitudes was enhancement of “the Nation’s competitive position in world markets,” which would surely bring “higher incomes for everyone” (quoted from Richard Ohmann in Radical Teacher).

Whether the corporate god or the diabolic Clinton deserves the blame, higher incomes have not in fact ensued for everyone – not even for many teachers and university staffs; but the marketeers’ argument for the advancement of learning survives in full vigor. On July 11, 2000, a major prophet of America’s true faith, Alan Greenspan, took time out from keeping wages low and prophets high and told the nation’s governors that government (big government?) must educate students “to meet the evolving demands for skilled labor” in “a rapidly changing economy.” Otherwise the U.S. will not “remain pre-eminent in transforming knowledge into economic value” (Austin American-Statesman, July 12).

The distinguished sociologist Stanley Aronowitz of New York’s City University, though a founder of the Center for Worker Education, remains a stiff-necked unbeliever in dominant Greenspannery – and of course (in Bush minor’s now altered judgment) like rich men, an unlikely entrant into Paradise. “There is little that would qualify as higher learning in the United States,” Aronowitz pronounces as he concludes his preface, and he is neither persuaded that “the existing system” can be reformed, nor willing to pay just any price to join in its reformation. In a recent interview, he said flatly, “I am not going to work with people who are basically interested in getting a job and doing narrow mainstream work.” In today’s market, Aronowitz could never make distinguished professor.

Readers of The Knowledge Factory shouldn’t follow hasty custom and skip that autobiographical preface, which is essential to an understanding of the book. Aronowitz represents himself as a maverick (perhaps rather self-satisfied) who was “a bright but disruptive child” in a memorable sixth grade, got into Brooklyn College but soon left for factory work and left-wing activism, began graduate study at the New School but took no degree, and in 1975 finally got a doctorate without attending classes in a “program called the Union Graduate School.” As might be expected, then, his book is marked by intelligence, wide reading, rich and varied experience, and a stubborn determination to follow the authorial nose.

The best guidance for the reader who may find the authorial nose a bit difficult to keep in sight is unfortunately provided late, in the last pages of Chapter 5, “Who Gets In, Who’s Left Out of Colleges and Universities?” A distinctive discussion of “the standards / access war,” Chapter 5 is highly relevant (as we used to say in the Sixties) in Texas now. “Critics of open admissions and other inclusive policies,” Aronowitz argues, demand improvement in the schools; but such improvement would require funding “not by property taxes, which produce much of the discriminatory gap” between districts rich and poor, but by “progressive state income taxes.” Robin Hood policies, taking money from rich districts and giving it to poor districts, are “cock-eyed populism run amok.” Leveling devices, they don’t do enough good for the poor to compensate for their damage to the rich.

There are other statements in Chapter 5 that standard-raisers would find challenging. Again, for example, “The condition for raising standards at many secondary schools, even by conservatives’ own lights, is a massive infusion of funds”; but fundraising of that less spectacular variety is hardly compatible with tax cuts.

The most important pages of Chapter 5 are, however, its last. “If what I have argued in the first section of this book is right,” Aronowitz says, “the end of an academic system providing masses of qualified labor for corporate America is near.” Some few schools “will continue to perform this function,” and (one presumes) their graduates will take the remaining good jobs. But people can no longer dream that education as it is can provide general “economic opportunity” or can help to create and maintain “a more democratic society.” The marketeers have triumphed, and “knowledge production and transmission must now justify itself in terms of its economic value or risk oblivion.” Talk of “a critical citizenry capable of governing itself” has no place in the discourse of the market.

For Aronowitz, the remaining questions are glum. Are there any “places of resistance” to “the prevailing trends in the undergraduate curriculum”? And “if learning, rather than training and political and ideological socialization were to become the mission of American higher education, what would it look like?”

To the first question, Aronowitz has already given his general answer in his preface; and in a catalogue of despair, he now includes “elite institutions,” the Harvardian core curriculum (“the elevation of incoherence to an educational principle”), multiculturalism, and assorted “studies” (women’s, ethnic, and African-American). “There is nothing,” from “third-tier schools” to the most elite, “that points the way to a genuine revival of intellectual culture.”

Desperate though he may be, Aronowitz insists on going beyond mere resistance by striking out, constructively, in new directions; and he tries to answer his second question by describing at least the first two years of a college curriculum devoted to higher learning. Chapter 7, echoing the subtitle of the whole book, “Dismantling the Corporate University,” briefly describes six courses, which (taught in one “rolling seminar”) would fully occupy the freshman and sophomore years.

Concentrating on the “four key college domains” of “history, literature, science, and philosophy,” the courses would “explore specific historical periods” with the intent “to find articulations between economic, political, and social currents, social and cultural movements, and knowledge orientations and, perhaps, to discover unexpected relationships with other cultures and contexts.” The subjects of the courses that would work this jargonic wonder are “the so-called ancient world” of Greece and Rome, “the science and philosophy of the East” (the East being specified as “North Africa, India, and China”), “the feudal epoch…between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Early Renaissance,” “Enlightenment philosophy and science in the context of the development of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution,” “modernity,” and “the twentieth century.”

I have to suspect that these pretentious courses, which Aronowitz describes mainly by name-dropping (e.g., Dante, Marlowe, Shakespeare, et seq. through Gogol to Hugo, with a secondary excursus to Japan) would in fact serve students lots of very thin soup. I know no institution that would long support such a program (or even allow it), no place where competent and willing teachers for it could be found, and no students who could easily be persuaded to undertake it. A maverick marching to his own drummer wants to impose his maverick education on possibly resistant students, and from his proposal I learned more about Aronowitz the autodidact than about practicable innovation.

And yet….

Though Aronowitz (in my view) has failed in his admirable effort to go beyond resistance and to offer a constructive alternative to Bushitis and Greenspannery, his criticism of the corporate university deserves all honor. My notes are full of his quotables:

In big public universities, the state in effect “assumes the costs of research intended for use in privately held production and services.””Private universities like to call themselves a public ‘trust,’ but…they live off the public trough” – i.e., “federal grants.””The notion that the university has a critical as well as research function has disappeared from the discourse.””Abysmal teachers routinely win tenure if they produce useful knowledge “Having adopted the framework and the ideology of the large corporation, universities and colleges…have also used budget cuts to effect a decisive power shift from faculty to administration.”None of those factual observations is new, but the courage to make them is less commonplace.

Even Clark Kerr’s old metaphor of the knowledge factory, which enraged Mario Savio in Berkeley in the Sixties, can still strike sparks. It reminded me of my own pet figure, the university as plantation. Ol’ Massa is a C.E.O. who may choose a more elegant residence than the plantation, but he is dutifully served by administrators as obishas (overseers), who can be trusted to threaten whipping if hungry field hands ask for an extra ration of ‘taters. The field hands are untenurable faculty, teaching assistants, and staff. Above them are the yard niggers, the untenured but tenurable faculty and commonplace professors; and at the peak of the faculty hierarchy are the star professors, who sometimes may even forget that they are still house niggers.

I like the plantation metaphor because it emphasizes the brutality of hierarchy in a collapsing system that faces reconstruction. I particularly like the equation of administrators (some few honorably excepted) with obishas, whom neither superiors nor inferiors respected. But there’s one difficulty. Where does Aronowitz fit in the plantation scheme? He works on the plantation; but after thinking about it, I’ve concluded he’s so ornery that he must have been born free.

Let freedom ring!

James Sledd is a honky who passes for a yard nigger emeritus at U.T.-Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST