[iDC] Defending UC

Blake Stimson blakestimson at gmail.com
Wed Sep 28 21:12:08 UTC 2011

Thanks Brian. Just to be clear, my association of DIY higher ed with market entrepreneurialism was not intended to be limited to Phoenix and Bill Gates but instead to include the whole range from what I called "dyed-in-the-wool, 'greed-is-good' Friedmanites" (e.g., UPhoenix) to "well-intentioned 'social entrepreneurs'" (such as, say, Wikipedia). My point, in other words, was not that entrepreneurialism is itself a bad thing but that it can be both good and bad. The main idea was that entrepreneurialism can pose productive challenges to institutions--as, for example, teach-ins did in the 1960s and Wikipedia does now--AND institutions can pose productive challenges to entrepreneurs--say through the kinds of regulations that once governed the banking industry or Obamacare hopefully will soon.

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 antidemocratic redistribution of wealth and power that defines our times. 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. 

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. 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. 

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.


On Sep 26, 2011, at 3:33 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:

> On 09/26/2011 04:09 PM, Blake Stimson wrote:
>> What adopting Adorno's old dialectical guideline would mean for us is
>> mostly just the even older idea of immanent critique. Put
>> schematically, we might say that the DIY higher ed movement (if we
>> can call it that) has been valuable in critiquing the implicit and
>> explicit role of the state in higher education from the
>> entrepreneurial perspective of the market... [snip]... however, we might
>> also be mindful of the immanently-critical role of the state and
>> defend it as an ideal.
> That's the way I see it - except maybe you're too schematic, and you 
> should accord the DIY approach not only a market-based identity, because 
> that would exclude a whole lot of projects that have nothing to do with 
> Phoenix or Bill Gates. The social struggle is over how to transform the 
> institutions in a period of crisis, and the problem I see on our side -- 
> the side that believes in the state provision of funds for public 
> institutions -- is the widely held Democratic or left-liberal assumption 
> that all we have to do is just fend off the worst of the budget cuts. I 
> say no, that approach has failed, there are too many grievances and too 
> much cynicism to sustain the appeals to liberal humanist values 
> supposedly incarnated in the university as it is. In careful theory I 
> agree with you that the problem is one of partial corruption, but if 
> there is no action from both within and without, the fast-approaching 
> future is corruption. Which would take the form of an entirely 
> entrepreneurialized society interlocking with a military/police state. 
> You can see that future taking form on the UC campuses already.
> So, OK, let's move forward. If we agree that the corruption is partial, 
> but pervasive and highly threatening -- and we seem to agree, I'm glad 
> of it, these exchanges are valuable -- then the urgent question is how 
> to mobilize society around a new ideal that can carry the best of the 
> old order into genuinely egalitarian institutions? Not only does every 
> critique have to have a destructive moment, but more importantly, every 
> political change has to have a social movement behind it. Otherwise it's 
> another passive revolution led by the top, which in our time means it's 
> going to lead to a nasty future.
> I'd say the demand of an immanent or situated critique is double:
> --First, identify and actively protest all the forces contributing to 
> the elimination of affordable, class and color-blind public education;
> --Second, forge and communicate the vision of a public education that 
> does not serve the neoliberal class society and police/military state.
> As far as I can tell, the first prong has not gone near far enough. The 
> UC strikes and related movements throughout the States and the world did 
> give rise to a theoretical indictment of adminstrative salaries, 
> corporate funding, sumptuary expenses on sports and other facilities, 
> the application of entrepreneurial metrics, and last but not least, the 
> gross imbalance between adjuncts and tenure-track professors. But those 
> initial movements have not, to my knowledge (and I would love to hear 
> the contrary!), created a sustained mobilization inside the salaried 
> ranks of the American institutions and that's the order of the day, 
> imho. I actually don't understand why this has not happened, but if the 
> relative privilege of salaried faculty is not an explanation, why then, 
> all that has to be done is to launch more vigorous protest and there 
> will be a lot of suppport for that. It would seem that intellectuals do 
> have to risk something, however.... Otherwise the whole liberal 
> Democratic or theoretically situationist or crypto-communist or whatever 
> sort of leftward-leaning posture that people are holding is just hollow.
> Point two is another big problem: the vision thing. We don't see much of 
> it. Maybe Elizabeth Losh has more to say on this angle, she already made 
> important points. To communicate an egalitarian vision means laying 
> aside the competition within your disciplinary specialization in order 
> to find languages that can communicate across class divides and cut 
> through the simplfying rhetorics of Perry and the like, which you 
> rightly point to as a danger. Convincing two dozen other readers of a 
> specialized journal that they need another footnote in order to climb up 
> the ranks is just not gonna do it. From this regard the DIY people, Anya 
> included, have something to offer -- or they would have, if there was 
> something to receive in return. How can universities become more 
> permeable to society again? How can their resources filter out to wider 
> numbers of users? What is the use-value of a university in a knowledge 
> society? These questions are urgent. Without answers, delivered in 
> languages that many different kinds of people can understand, we will 
> have continued functionalization of the universities through the type of 
> center-left/extreme right compromise that passes for politics under Obama.
> Once I was a PhD candidate spouting Derridean concepts in California. 
> Then I was an art critic channeling Guattari in France. Then I was an 
> anti-globo activist chanting Negri wherever there was a chance to 
> protest about financial capitalism. You learn as you go, and there's a 
> method to this madness. Now I'm trying to write about the 1930s for an 
> autonomous seminar on economic crises in North America. The method is 
> called: get constructively political.
> solidarities, Brian
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