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Henry Giroux: Why Faculty Should Care about Occupy?

Q: Increasingly, Occupy protesters are setting up camp on colleges. What might a faculty member learn if they wandered into one and sat down to talk to an OWS protester?

One of the things they might learn is that critical forms of education and dialogue are taking place outside of the university, and that issues often ignored within the halls, disciplines, and classrooms of many universities are being talked about.

During the last 20 years, higher education has become increasingly corporatized and subject to the market-driven values and managerial relations that treat faculty and students as entrepreneurs and clients. Faculty might both learn and be inspired about the current attempt on the part of students to change the conversation about the meaning and purpose of higher education. They might be moved and educated by the attempts 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 and rather than offer an education in which students can become critical individual and social agents who believe 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 an invitation to join a larger conversation, 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 the very nature of democracy itself. The Occupy protestors are arguing that while they might support a market economy they do not want to live in a market society, a society in which market values become a template for solving organizing all aspects of social life.

They have learned the hard way that beneath this market fundamentalism lies a mode of education and a set of values that contains a secret order of politics that is destructive to the environment, 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. 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. 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 to important issues that range from poverty and joblessness to corporate corruption. They are also fuelling a much needed conversation about the perilous state of their own lives, given that they are burdened increasingly by egregious debts and lack of decent jobs, and face a future of diminishing hopes.

Put differently, the Occupy protesters are asking big questions and 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, and also to 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 Occupy protestors an opportunity to speak to their classes, by creating autonomous spaces within the university where they might meet and engage in dialogue with others, and, going 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 anti-democratic 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, as faculty we have a lot to learn from both the ways in which students are changing the conversation about education, important social issues, democracy, and 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 that students are raising are important for faculty to consider, as they rethink those modes of professionalism, specialism, and social relations that have cut them off from addressing important social issues and the larger society. I think the Occupy protestors are right in arguing that higher education is a vital public sphere that should be at the forefront in addressing these issues. Faculty should combine their scholarly rigor and knowledge to bridging 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.

Q: Is it fair to connect the growth of this movement with trends in higher education, such as the increasing lack of access, the growth of the for-profit college industry, and rising student debt?

In 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. They view these policies and for-profit industries as part of an assault on not just the public character of the university but also 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 ideas within the university. They are rethinking what should be the role of the university today. In doing so, they are arguing for the social benefits and public value of higher education, and against the actions of conservative politicians to defund higher education, cut public spending, and refuse to tax corporations and the rich.

They 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. What is important about the Occupy protesters criticism of becoming a debt generation, being 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 are seen as part of a broader criticism against the withering away of the public realm, public values, and any viable notion of the public good.

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 are rejecting a notion of society that embraces a definition of agency in which people are viewed only as commodities, bound together in a Darwinian nightmare by 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. And this is particularly true of their view of higher education. What they 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.’”

Q: What reading would you assign to a protester? What reading would you assign to the college instructor who stays outside the camp boundaries?

There are certainly no standard book list or recipes for this sort of pedagogical endeavour. But I would suggest that faculty read what many young people in the Occupy movement are publishing either online in news media such as Truthout, CounterPunch, Truthdig, or in many of their own online sources such as the Wall Street Media Public Art Project and the Occupied Wall Street newspaper . I think young people should look at those authors who have created a wealth of important work about struggling against oppression and addressing what it might mean to organize collectively to address such issues. There is no one list but intellectuals such as Howard Zinn, Paulo Freire, C.W. Mills, Stanley Aronowitz, Cornelius Castoriadis, John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Judith Butler, Naomi Kline, Manning Marable, Lewis Gordon, Ellen Willis, Angela Davis, Chris Hedges, Susan Searls Giroux, Michel Foucault, Loic Wacquant, and Pierre Bourdieu might constitute a good beginning.

Q: You say the time has come to connect "knowledge, not just to power but to the very meaning of what it means to be an engaged intellectual responsive to the possibilities of individual and collective resistance and change." How can a union help its members to make those connections?

I think that unions have to broaden the scope of their politics and the issues they address. The traditional concerns of faculty unions around issues such as academic freedom, faculty working conditions, faculty benefits, governance policies, and salary considerations, to name a few, are important. But I think that, since the 1980s, the university has been transformed in terms of its meaning and purpose and has undergone both a legitimation crisis and a political crisis. Many Americans no longer view the university as a public good. It has largely become too insular and bureaucratized; it looks more like a private corporation. And not only does it appear to be driven by narrow financial and insular considerations, it also has surrendered its mission as a democratic public sphere where students learn to think critically, hold power accountable, and connect knowledge and social relations to the social costs they enact. To paraphrase William Greider, 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 consuming.

Politically, universities need real moral and intellectual leadership to address the current crisis in which they find themselves, not an army of managerial bureaucrats who increasingly subordinate research and teaching to commercially driven interests or to the ever-encroaching imperatives of the national security state. Unions can join with the Occupy protesters to use their educational resources to make clear that the crisis facing higher education cannot be understood outside of the current crisis of youth and democracy. Hence, the unions could support teachers by using their enormous public relations resources to start a new conversation about the democratic purpose of education and the forces that are now threatening it. They could offer educators opportunities to begin a dialogue with young people in union journals, media outlets, and other forms of public pedagogy. They could also offer young people an opportunity for their voices to be heard in such media outlets. Most importantly, they could mobilize teachers all over the country into a powerful social movement designed to fight those forces that are attacking higher education precisely because it is public. Unions need to take a stand on the most important social and economic problems facing higher education and the larger global society, including environmental degradation, the assault on social provisions, the hollowing out of the public sphere, the defunding of public goods, and the massive and poisonous attempts to privatize public and higher education. Unions have a moral and intellectual responsibility to create a formative culture in which the voices of educators, students, and parents, intellectuals, and others can be mobilized and heard as part of a broader struggle for a more democratic future, especially the voices of those young people who are often left out of such conversations.


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