Protesters react during a rally at the University of California, Davis campus, November 21, 2011. (Photo: Annie Tritt / The New York Times)
In both the United States and many other countries, students are protesting against rising tuition fees, the increasing financial burdens they are forced to assume, and the primacy of market models in shaping higher education while emphasizing private benefits to individuals and the economy. Many students view these policies and for-profit industries as part of an assault on not just the public character of the university but also as an attack on civic society and their future.
For many young people in the Occupy movement, higher education has defaulted on its promise to provide them with both a quality education and the prospects of a dignified future. They resent the growing instrumentalization and accompanying hostility to critical and oppositional ideas within the university. They have watched over the years as the university is losing ground as a place to think, dissent, and develop a culture of questioning, dialogue, and civic enlightenment. They are rethinking what should be the role of the university in a world caught in a nightmarish blend of war, massive economic inequities and ecological destruction.
What role should the university play at a time when politics is being emptied out of any connection to a civic literacy, informed judgment, and critical dialogue, further deepening a culture of illiteracy, cruelty, hypermasculinity and disposability? Young people are not only engaging in a great refusal; they are also arguing for the social benefits and public value of higher education while deeply resenting the fact that, as conservative politicians defund higher education and cut public spending, they do so in order to be able to support tax breaks for corporations and the rich and to ensure ample funds for sustaining and expanding the warfare state.
The Occupy protesters view the assault on the programs that emerged out of the New Deal and the Great Society as being undermined as society increasingly returns to a Second Gilded Age, in which youth have to bear the burden of an attack on the welfare state, social provisions, and a huge wealth and income inequality gap. Young people recognize that they have become disposable, and that higher education, which always embodied the ideal, though in damaging terms, of a better life, has now become annexed to the military-academic-industrial complex.
What is important about the Occupy protesters' criticism of being saddled with onerous debt, viewed as a suspect generation, subjected to the demands of an audit culture that confuses training with critical education and their growing exclusion from higher education is that such concerns situate the attack on higher education as part of a broader criticism against the withering away of the public realm, public values and any viable notion of the public good. To paraphrase William Greider, they have come to recognize in collective fashion that higher education has increasingly come to resemble "an ecological dead zone" where social relevance and engaged scholarship perishes in a polluted, commercial, market-driven environment. The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of identities in which the only obligation of citizenship is to be a consumer.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters reject the propaganda they have been relentlessly fed by a market-driven culture: the notion that markets should take priority over governments, that market values are the best means for ordering society and satisfying human needs, that material interests are more important than social needs, and that self-interest is the driving force of freedom and the organizing principle of society. The Occupy Wall Street protests refuse a notion of society that embraces a definition of agency in which people are viewed only as commodities, bound together in a Darwinian nightmare that celebrates the logic of greed, unchecked individualism and a disdain for democratic values. The old idea of democracy in which the few govern the many through the power of capital and ritualized elections is being replaced with a new understanding of democracy and politics, in which power and resources are shared and economic justice and democratic values work in the interest of social responsibility and the common good. This radical notion of democracy is in the making, unfinished, and open to connecting people, power, resources and knowledge. And this turn toward a radical understanding of connecting the particular to the general is particularly true of their view of higher education. What the Occupy protesters recognize, as the British educator Simon Dawes points out, is that, "'the public university' can be read as shorthand for 'not-neoliberal university,' where neoliberal means more than private funding; it means 'not good for democracy.'"
All over the country, Occupy movement protesters are setting up camps on college campuses. Not only are they protesting the ways in which universities now resemble corporations treating faculty as a subaltern class of casualized labor and defining students largely as customers and clients; they have also recognized that banks and loan corporations, with their army of lobbyists, have declared war on students, killing any legislation that would reduce the cost of schooling, stifling any legislation that would make it affordable for all working- and middle-class students.
They are also raising serious questions about academics. Where are they when it comes to protesting the corporatization and militarization of higher education? Why are so many of them complicit with the ideologies and money now used by corporations and the national security state to promote the interest of finance capital and agencies such as the CIA, Defense Department, Pentagon and other apparatuses of the national security state intent on recruiting students to produce militarized knowledge and create new and ever more sophisticated surveillance systems and weapons of mass destruction? Why do so many academics cling to a notion of disinterested and objective scholarship and publish and make a claim to pedagogy that allegedly decries any relationship to politics, power or interest in larger social issues? What Occupy movement protesters have recognized is that for all intents and purposes, too many academics who make a claim to objectivity, and, in some cases, reject the presence of the military-industrial-academic complex on campus, have become irrelevant to offering any viable defense of the university as a democratic public sphere, or, for that matter, even defending to a broader public the very conditions that make their work possible.
One important question that arises from the Occupy movement's migration to college campuses is, what can academics learn from these young people? One of the things they might learn is that critical and important forms of education and dialogue are taking place outside of the university, in which issues are being talked about that are often ignored within the halls, disciplines and classrooms in many universities. Many universities have lost touch with bridging the production of knowledge, research and teaching with the myriad urgent social issues now facing the larger society, including crushing poverty, environmental degradation, racism, the suspension of civil liberties, the colonization of the media by corporations, the rise of the punishing state, religious fanaticism, the corruption of politics by big money and other concerns.
Since the 1980s, higher education has been increasingly corporatized and militarized and subject to market-driven values and managerial relations that treat faculty and students as entrepreneurs and clients, while reducing knowledge to the dictates of an audit culture, and pedagogy to a destructive and reductive instrumental rationality. It is hoped that academics might both learn about and be inspired by the current attempt on the part of students to change the conversation about the meaning and purpose of higher education. Hopefully, they might be moved and educated by the attempt on the part of many young people today to reclaim higher education as a democratic public sphere, one that not only provides work skills, but also offers a formative culture that prepares students to be critical and active agents in shaping the myriad of economic, social and political forces that govern their lives.
Students are rejecting a model of education based on narrow forms of measurable utility, capital accumulation, and cost-efficient asset and power-stripping measures; they are rejecting a market-driven model of education that reduces 70 percent of faculty to a subaltern class of part time workers and treats students as customers and commodities, offering them overcrowded classrooms, skyrocketing tuition rates and modes of learning that have little to do with enabling them to translate personal troubles into social problems. Universities increasingly have come to resemble malls. Rather than offer students an education in which they can become critical individual and social agents who believe that they have the power to change things, they are largely reduced to passive consumers entertained by the spectacles of big sports, celebrity culture and the lure of utterly privatized desires.
In many ways, students are offering faculty the possibility of becoming part of a larger conversation, if not a social movement, one that addresses what the role of the university might be in relation to public life in the 21st century. Central to such an inquiry is examining how higher education has been caught in the grip of larger economic and political forces that undermine the social state, social provisions and democracy itself. The Occupy protesters are arguing that while they might support a limited notion of a market economy, they do not want to live in a market society, a society in which market values become a template for organizing all aspects of social life. They have learned the hard way that beneath this market fundamentalism resides a mode of education and a set of values that contain a secret order of politics that is destructive of democratic social relations, democratic modes of equality and civic education itself.
Young people can make clear to faculty that, over the last 30 years, they have been written out of the social contract and are no longer viewed as a symbol of hope, just as they have been written out of the power relations that govern the university. No longer regarded as an important social investment or as a marker for the state of democracy and the moral life of the nation, young people have become the objects of a more direct and damaging assault waged on them on a number of political economic and cultural fronts. They have been deprived of decent scholarships, disrespected in their attempts to gain a quality education, foiled in their attempts to secure a decent job, and denied a voice in the shaping of the institutions that bear down heavily on their daily lives.
Big banks and large financial institutions view them as a drain on the nation's financial coffers and as a liability in making quick financial profits through short-term investments. Young people are now challenging this toxic form of casino capitalism and, in doing so, are changing the national conversation that has focused on deficit reduction and taxing the poor. They are shifting this conversation to important issues, which range from poverty and joblessness to corporate corruption. Put differently, the Occupy protesters are asking big questions, and they are not simply being moralistic. They are also demanding an alternative vision and set of policies to drive American society.
Faculty need to listen to young people in order to try to understand the problems they face and how, as academics, they might be unknowingly complicit in reproducing such problems. They also need to begin a conversation with young people and among other faculty about how they can become a force for democratic change.
Young people need a space on campuses to talk back, talk to one another, engage in respectful dialogue with faculty and learn how to engage in coalition building. Faculty and administrators can begin to open up the possibility for such spaces by offering the Occupy protesters an opportunity to speak to their classes, create autonomous spaces within the university where they might meet and engage in dialogue with others. They can go even further by joining them in fighting those economic and political forces that are destroying higher education as a social good and as a citadel of rigorous intellectual engagement and civic debate.
Young people no longer recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market, and they no longer believe in an education that ignores critical thinking, dialogue, and those values that engage matters of social responsibility and civic engagement. But students have more to offer than a serious critique of the university and its complicity with a number of antidemocratic forces now shaping the larger society. They are also modeling for faculty new modes of participatory democracy, and exhibiting forms of pedagogy and education that connect learning with social change and knowledge with more democratic modes of self-development and social empowerment. Clearly, academics have a lot to learn from both the ways in which students are changing the conversation about education, important social issues, and democracy, and from what it might mean to imagine a new understanding of politics and a different future.
All of these issues are especially true for those faculty members that believe that scholarship should be disinterested and removed from addressing important social issues. The questions students are raising are important for faculty to rethink those modes of professionalism, specialism and social relations which have cut them off from addressing important social issues and the larger society. Professionalism does not have to translate into a flight from moral and intellectual responsibility.
Faculty can also put pressure on their unions to support the Occupy movement, provide them with financial and media resources, and join with them in pushing for educational and political reforms. The Occupy protesters are surely right in arguing that higher education is a vital public sphere that should be at the forefront in addressing important political, economic and social issues. Faculty should combine their scholarly rigor and knowledge to bridge the gap between the university and everyday life - not to benefit corporate interests or the warfare state, but to benefit existing and future generations of young people who hold the key to whether democracy will survive the current moment in American history.
Too many academics for too long have turned their backs on addressing important social issues, on joining with young people to fight with them for a better future and using their knowledge and skills to convince a wider public that higher education is crucial for not only students, but for the common good and the entire society. Joining with students in the Occupy movement is not merely a career choice; it is a choice about what kind of society we all want to live in, and how the urgency of that question at the current historical moment demands that academics take that question seriously and act as quickly as possible, with passion and conviction.