[iDC] Defending UC

Brian Holmes bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com
Thu Sep 29 16:29:14 UTC 2011

It's great to sustain the public debate, Blake. It's the only way to get 
beyond the usual schiz of promotional confidence and total cynicism.

> 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.

We agree on that!

> 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.

But here our analysis diverges, because I think that universities have 
already been largely repurposed along neoliberal lines. I don't think UC 
is public anymore. The ethos of equality does not exist in the system, 
because the administrators are frankly on the take, the majority of 
professors are paid off the wage scale and most of teaching is done by 
adjuncts under vastly unequal conditions. If Schwartz's analysis is 
right, there is no public support for undergraduates since their tuition 
pays for their entire education, while the government, corporate and 
endowment money goes to sports and research labs. To this extent, "the 
market" is not exterior to "the institution." Rather, since the time of 
Re agan and Clinton you have a powerful and partially completed trend 
towards a "market institution." There is a lot of frustration and anger 
across the board in the face of this situation, and the point is to 
elevate those sentiments into a constructive leftist and 
social-democratic critique of that which founds them in reality. I am, 
by the way, a taker when it comes to names, references, projects 
elaborating such critique. Without it the left is just nostalgia.

> 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.

Here again we agree. I think the ideal corporate model is functional 
knowledge piped directly into your brain by networked media without any 
of that subversive classroom and discussion stuff. As a complement, the 
traditional upper classes and their more recent imitators have no 
intention of letting go of the Ivy League schools where more agile and 
powerful forms of subjectivity can be cultivated.

> 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.

This will definitely be the case if the marketization of the state 
university systems is completed! That's why I am saying it's nuts to 
"defend UC" without a deep critique of what's already indefensible in 
it. The grad student/adjunct population has a very sour view of the 
institution today, largely based on their economic experience doing the 
majority of the teaching without ever having a career. So the so-called 
public university is supported on a foundation of seething resentment. 
Without a simultaneous recognition of the situation the graduate 
teachers are describing and an effort to campaign against it very 
actively and at all levels - analysis, department and university 
politics, activism, state and national politics - there will be no 
social forces to resist the kind of Tea Party populism that is shown in 
the sinister Lebed "College Conspiracy" video you linked to, which is 
worth watching for sure (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpZtX32sKVE). We 
do need a critique of neoliberal financialization, which is the target 
of that video. But we don't need *their* critique, because it will turn 
us into morons under the boot of the right-wing oligarchies.

> 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.

Here we go! We perfectly agree. However probably I take it a good deal 
further than you and I'm curious what you and other people may think.

I think we need to create a strong left civil society that can make 
ideas politically active. This is urgent because the right is doing 
their version of it, and after the long Reagan and Clintonian 
transformation of the New Deal institutions, this effort of the right 
cannot be fought by just defending the eviscerated shells of formerly 
public institutions. To create a powerful left praxis with only a weak 
institutional base and no billionaire Koch-brother resources is going to 
require several things. The creation of intense discursive communities 
outside the university. The movement of people between universities, 
critical communities, workplaces and social movements. The forging of a 
new egalitarian political discourse and a cooperative aesthetics. The 
creation of supple and resilient networks to link all that. Ultimately, 
new political platforms based in this expansion of critical civil 
society and social movements.

It sounds like a lot, but otherwise it looks to me like the writing is 
on the wall for social democracy, let alone the "communist horizon" that 
Jodi Dean is talking about. I guess university professors would have to 
begin by reorienting their research and publishing activities towards 
areas that have some use value for people outside, while simultaneously 
elaborating meta-discourses to prove to themselves, first of all, that 
this is not about populism or the watering down of their subjects, but 
instead about the creation of a more rich and socially complex form of 
knowledge. Personally I find that kind of creativity the most 
passionately interesting one!

further, Brian

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