Academic Labor in Dark Times

Making Democracy Matter


I do not believe that a student of human reality may be ethically neutral. The sole choice we face is one between loyalty to the humiliated and to beauty, and indifference to both. It is like any other choice a moral being confronts: between taking and refusing to take responsibility for one’s responsibility.

Zygmunt Bauman1

In his sobering analysis of recent democratic decline, Sheldon Wolin has rightly argued that in a “genuinely democratic system, as opposed to a pseudo democratic one in which a ‘representative sample’ of the population is asked whether it ‘approves’ or ‘disapproves,’ citizens would be viewed as agents actively involved in the exercise of power and in contributing to the direction of policy.”2 There is a long tradition of critical intellectuals in American higher education extending from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn, who have all insisted that the university is one of the few spaces where the task of educating students to become critical agents and socially engaged citizens is not only crucial to the meaning of education but also an essential condition of academic labor and democracy itself. As a vast array of public spheres, including some of the nation’s major newspapers, either fall prey to corporate control or simply disappear, higher education becomes one of the few remaining sites where a society might question itself, where it might reflectively consider how lived realities measure against democratic practices and ideals. Universities thus provide the pedagogical conditions for existing and future generations both to defend democratic principles and to incorporate them into their own understanding of what it means to define themselves as engaged citizens and socially responsible adults.

Understanding higher education as a democratic public sphere means fully recognizing the purpose and meaning of education and the role of academic labor, which assumes among its basic goals promoting the well-being of students, a goal that far exceeds the oft-stated mandate of either preparing students for the workforce or engaging in a rigorous search for truth. While such objectives are not without merit, they narrow the focus of human agency, depoliticize education, and ignore the issue of civic responsibility, among other generally unacknowledged shortcomings. Defining education as a search for the truth and preparing students for the workforce says little about the role that academics might play in influencing the fate of future citizens and the state of democracy itself. Surely academics are required to speak a kind of truth, but as Stuart Hall points out, “maybe not truth with a capital T, but … some kind of truth, the best truth they know or can discover [and] to speak that truth to power.”3 Implicit in Hall’s statement is an awareness that the priorities of big business and other powerful interests are not always, or even routinely, the priorities that shape intellectual commitment or pedagogical practice. To speak truth to power is not a temporary and unfortunate lapse into politics on the part of academics: it is central to opposing all those modes of ignorance, market-based or otherwise instrumental rationalities, and fundamentalist ideologies that make judgments difficult and democracy dysfunctional.

Amy Gutmann broadens the truth-seeking function of universities by insisting that “education is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency, the ability to struggle with ongoing relations of power, and is a precondition for creating informed and critical citizens. For Gutmann, what is unique about academics is the crucial role they play in linking education to democracy and recognizing pedagogy as an ethical and political practice tied to modes of authority in which the “democratic state recognizes the value of political education in predisposing [students] to accept those ways of life that are consistent with sharing the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society.”4 And higher education, if it is to take its democratic ideals seriously, must be recognized as more than an outpost of business culture simply there to do the bidding of corporate power.5 Democratic societies need educated citizens who are steeped in more than workplace skills and the formal competencies of textual analysis. And it is precisely this democratic project that affirms the critical function of education and academic labor, while refusing to narrow its goals and aspirations to instrumental or methodological considerations. This is what makes intellectual labor different from other provincial notions of teaching, largely restricted to teaching the canon or the conflicts, and other narrowly defined pedagogical commitments. And it is precisely the failure to connect learning to its democratic functions and possibilities that creates the conditions for those pedagogical approaches that ignore what it means to receive a critical education.6

The goals of higher education and the demands of academic labor must also include teaching students to be responsive to deepest conflicts of our times, learning how to identify anti-democratic forces in the wider society, and connecting knowledge, power, and critical modes of agency to the task of imagining a more just world and demonstrating a willingness to struggle for it. Academics have a moral and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies, to make problematic the commonsense assumptions that often shape students’s lives and their understanding of the world, but also to energize them to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Higher education, in this instance, as Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, Stanley Aronowitz, and others have reminded us, cannot be removed from the hard realities of those political, economic, and social forces that both support it and consistently, though in diverse ways, attempt to shape its sense of mission and purpose.7 Politics is not alien to higher education but central to comprehending the institutional, economic, ideological, and social forces that give it meaning and direction. Politics also references the outgrowth of historical conflicts that mark higher education as an important site of struggle. As Pierre Bourdieu has argued, politics illuminates the complex ideological and institutional conditions that enable universities to function as democratic public spheres. At the same time, it makes visible the fact that such conditions are the outcome of “fragile social achievements that open up the possibility of more equality and justice, and to sacrifice them is to step backwards, whether this step is masked by a deterministic analysis of the ‘market’ or a naked assertion of self-interest by the wealthy and powerful.”8 Politics is thus not the bane of either education or academic research but rather a primary register of their complex relation to matters of power, ideology, freedom, justice, and democracy. The real enemies of education are those modes of politicizing education in which matters of critical dialogue, judgment, debate, and engagement are disabled through allegiance to domains of ideological purity, certainty, dogma, and assured knowledge—a species of fundamentalist thinking and practice that is not limited to any one ideological position or disciplinary terrain.

Nurturing critical agency is part of a pedagogical process that must be self-reflective, empowering, and directive, but not propagandistic. When the distinction between a political and politicizing education is collapsed or lost, the role of academics is reduced to that of either corporate clerks, hermetic specialists, or jargon-ridden, clever apologists for established power who justify their unthreatening combativeness by gleefully claiming “to profess nothing.”9 The smug call for academics to profess nothing or to “save the world on their own time” is not an educational virtue but a form of surrender, a corrosive cynicism parading as a form of professionalism, an ethical refusal to educate students to question official dogma, to create the pedagogical conditions for them to become moral agents and critical citizens, and to provide them with the knowledge and skills to engage the tension between existing reality and the promise of democracy. The “save the world on your own time” creed aligns too closely with the neoliberal incantation that “there is no alternative” and in the end means complicity with the established order. In this discourse, education as a fundamental basis for engaged citizenship, like politics itself, becomes a temporary irritant to be quickly removed from the hallowed halls of academia. In this stillborn conception of academic labor, faculty and students are scrubbed clean of any illusions about connecting what they learn to a world “strewn with ruin, waste and human suffering.”10

Yet the commitments academics enact are distinctively political and civic, whether they deny or willingly embrace such roles. University educators cannot ignore politics, nor can they deny responsibility for acknowledging that the crisis of agency is at the center of the current crisis of democracy. At the very least, academics should be more responsible to and for a politics that raises serious questions about how students and educators negotiate the institutional, pedagogical, and social relations shaped by diverse ideologies and dynamics of power, especially as these relations mediate and inform competing visions regarding whose interests the university might serve, what role knowledge plays in furthering both excellence and equity, and how higher education defines and defends its own role in relation to its often stated, though hardly operational, allegiance to egalitarian and democratic impulses.

The view of higher education as a democratic public sphere committed to producing knowledge, skills, and social practices that enable young people to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, their moral imaginations, the public good, and the imperatives of a substantive democracy has been in a state of acute crisis for the last thirty years.11 Harnessed to the needs and demands of corporate and military interests, higher education has increasingly abandoned even the pretense of promoting democratic ideals. The needs of corporations and the warfare state now define the nature of research, the role of faculty, the structure of university governance, and the type of education offered to students.12 As federal and state funding for higher education is cut, universities are under more pressure to turn to corporate and military resources to keep them afloat. Such partnerships betray a more instrumental and mercenary assignment for higher education, a role that undermines the free flow of information, dialogue, and dissent. When faculty assume, in this context, their civic responsibility to educate students to think critically, act with conviction, learn how to make authority and power accountable, and connect what they learn in classrooms to important social issues in the larger society, they are often denounced for politicizing their classrooms and for violating professional codes of conduct, or, worse, labelled as unpatriotic.13 In some cases, the risk of connecting what they teach to the imperative to expand the capacities of students to be both critical and socially engaged may cost academics their jobs, especially when they make visible the workings of power, injustice, human misery, and the alterable nature of the social order—all too evident in the recent firings of Norman Finklestein and Ward Churchill.

Educators need to defend what they do as political, support the university as place to think, and create programs that nurture a culture of questioning. But there is even more at stake here. It needs to be recognized on a broad scale that the very way in which knowledge is selected, pedagogies are defined, social relations are organized, and futures are imagined is always political, though these processes do not have to be politicized in a vulgar or authoritarian way. Again, the conditions that make the university possible as a democratic public sphere are inescapably political and should be defended as such, but such a defense should take seriously the distinctive role that academics play not merely in preparing students for the world in which they work and live but also in enabling them to function as individual and social agents capable of critically understanding their own capacities and responsibilities in working to expand the promise of a democracy that is increasingly under assault.

The utterly privatized, if not reactionary, discourse through which academics with any sense of public commitment are now upbraided and told to save the world on their own time mimics both the logic of the market and the silencing forces of the corporate and warfare state.14 Within this discourse, there is a needless severing of the connection between the private and the public, theory and practice, learning and social change, and the university and the broader social contract, with its implied ethical and political foundations. Such a crude dismissal of academic responsibility is not merely theoretically hermetic and politically naive; it is also part of an ongoing attack on the crucial civic and pedagogically responsible role that both the university and academics have in a society that—until the current global financial collapse—had aligned itself with the production of violence, greed, self-interest, cut-throat competitiveness, and a market-driven world bereft of ethical considerations. In a society that remains troubling resistant to or incapable of questioning itself, one that celebrates the consumer over the citizen and willingly endorses the narrow values and interests of corporate power, the importance of the university as a place of critical learning, dialogue, and social justice advocacy becomes all the more imperative. Moreover, the distinctive role that faculty play in this ongoing pedagogical project of democratization and learning, along with support for the institutional conditions and relations of power that make it possible, must be defended as part of a broader discourse of excellence, equity, and democracy. As Wolin points out, “For its part, democracy is ultimately dependent on the quality and accessibility of public education, especially of public universities. Education per se is not a source of democratic legitimacy: it does not serve as a justification for political authority, yet it is essential to the practice of citizenship.”15

For education to be civic, critical, and democratic rather than privatized, militarized, and commodified, the work that academics do cannot be defended exclusively within the discourse of specialization, technological mastery, or a market-driven rationality concerned about profit margins. On the contrary, academic labor is distinctive by virtue of its commitment to modes of education that take seriously John Dewey’s notion that democracy is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended, or as Richard Bernstein puts it:

Democracy, according to Dewey, does not consist exclusively of a set of institutions, formal voting procedures, or even legal guarantee of rights. These are important, but they require a culture of everyday democratic cooperative practices to give them life and meaning. Otherwise institutions and procedures are in danger of becoming hollow and meaningless. Democracy is “a way of life,” an ethical ideal that demands active and constant attention. And if we fail to work at creating and re-creating democracy, there is no guarantee that it will survive. Democracy involves a reflective faith in the capacity of all human beings for intelligent judgment, deliberation, and action if the proper social, educational, and economic conditions are furnished.16

Democracy is not cheap and neither are the political, economic, and social conditions that make it possible. If academics believe that the university is a space for and about democracy, they need to profess more, not less, about eliminating the racial, economic, and political conditions that fill their ranks with adjuncts,17 remove faculty from exercising power in university governance, and work towards eliminating the economic conditions that prevent working-class and middle-class youth from getting a decent post-secondary education.

Both the responsibility that academics bear and the political nature of that responsibility are especially clear given the current unprecedented economic meltdown the country is now facing. As the financial crisis reaches historic proportions, free-market fundamentalism is losing both its claim to legitimacy and its pretense to democracy. Even a Newsweek cover declared recently that “We Are All Socialist Now.”18 Despite this apparent growing recognition that market fundamentalism has fostered a destructive alignment among the state, corporate capital, and transnational corporations, there is little understanding that such an alignment has been constructed and solidified through a neoliberal disciplinary apparatus and corporate pedagogy mostly produced in the halls of higher education and reinforced through the educational force of the larger media culture. The economic Darwinism of the last thirty years has done more than throw the financial and credit system into crisis; it has also waged an attack on all those social institutions that support critical modes of agency, reason, and meaningful dissent. And yet, the financial Katrina we are now experiencing is rarely seen as part of an educational crisis in which the institutions of public and higher education have been conscripted into a war on democratic values through the endless reproduction of neoliberal beliefs, social relations, identities, and modes of understanding that legitimate the institutional arrangements of a cut-throat capitalism that has spawned rapacious greed, grotesque levels of inequality, the devaluation of any viable notion of the public good, and far-reaching levels of human suffering. There seems to be an enormous disconnect between the economic conditions that led to the current financial meltdown and the current call to action of a generation of young people and adults who have been educated for the last several decades in the knowledge, values, and identities of a market-driven society. Clearly, this generation of young people and adults will not solve this crisis if they do not connect it to the assault on an educational system that has been reduced to a lowly adjunct of corporate interests and the bidding of the warfare state.

This disconnect becomes clear in a recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times in which she uncritically reports that in light of the current economic crisis the humanities are going to have a harder time defending themselves because they are often found inadequate to the task of educating students for future employment in the workforce.19 According to Cohen, the humanities in these tough economic times has to “to justify its existence,” by which she means it has to align itself more closely still with the needs of the economy—a view closer to training than educating.20 Rather then view the humanities, if not higher education in general, as one of the few public spheres left that can educate students to do more than reproduce a now widely condemned set of market-driven values, she wants universities to adopt them even more aggressively, in spite of broad public recognition that this mode of corporate-driven education has both undermined the economy and sabotaged any viable notion of critical agency and democracy. Oddly, Cohen argues that the free-market rationality that has undermined, if not ruined, so many basic institutions in American society need not be jettisoned by higher education but applied more stringently. Couple this argument with the news that many prominent newspapers are now failing and it becomes clear that the responsibility of faculty who inhabit the university can no longer downplay or “abandon the idea that life’s most important questions are an appropriate subject for the classroom.”21 Academics have a distinct and unique responsibility to make learning relevant not merely to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method, or research specialization but, more importantly, to the activation of knowledge, passion, values, and hope in the service of modes of agency that are crucial to sustaining a democracy in which higher education plays its rightful civic and critical pedagogical role. Renewing such a commitment, academics will more easily defend their role as public and engaged intellectuals, while also enabling higher education to live up to its promise as a valuable and valued democratic public sphere.

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 newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.


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