The following is an essay from my MA course, given the news today in the UK around "free-speech" in universities I felt it timely to publish this. I've been meaning to publish it for some time, especially following the Insurrection attempt in the US. I often see people online claiming that "education" is what's needed to counter Far-right, neoliberalism; in this essay I hope I show that this claim is not true under our current education systems.
In this essay I argue that academic faculty have a key role to play in the undermining and eventual destruction of Neoliberalism. First, I define what I mean by neoliberalism, and provide some background to how it became the hegemonic global economic theory (Harvey, 2005). I show that the rise of neoliberalism was not a natural evolution of economic theory but the Power Elite’s (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) backlash to the social justice movements of the 1960s (Harvey, 2005; Giroux, 2017; Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013). I show how the early neoliberalists targeted education and universities as a cornerstone in their plans to ensure their own economic and social power (Sum and Jessop, 2013; Giroux, 2005). I show how neoliberalism operates pedagogically, with education conceptualised under the ‘banking model’ and how the neoliberal call for ‘more educated populace’ is lip-service, meaning they want a populace that has been provided with the ‘right kind of education’ (Freire, 1974; Jessop, 2007; Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013; Sum and Jessop, 2013; Kauppinen, 2014; Swann, 2019). I provide a picture of what marketisation and neoliberal attacks on universities have done to academic staff, and to pedagogical practice in general (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004; Olssen and Peters, 2007; Sum and Jessop, 2013; Jabbar et al., 2018; Noble and Ross, 2019b; Swann, 2019; Tuckett, 2019). I outline the effects this neoliberalisation of education has had on wider society and democracy (Giroux, 2005, 2017). Finally, I present a picture of another way - of resisting, reclaiming, and reinventing Higher Education in order to work towards a more just society.
“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade”
The contradictions which Venugopal (2015) identifies in the critiques of Social Scientists are in fact part of this same ideology and have been ‘baked in’ to the concept from its inception (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013).
Neoliberalism developed in the 1970s in response to the economic decline that was taking place - the end of the 1960s saw a rise in unemployment and rising inflation which brought about a phase of global ‘stagflation’ (Harvey, 2005; Sum and Jessop, 2013). The Keynesian economics of the post-war period were now no longer producing the kinds of benefits they once had (Harvey, 2005). These Neoliberal Economists embraced Hayekian economics and argued that the state could never have the same level information on ‘matters of investment and capital accumulation’ as that which is contained in ‘market signals’ (Harvey, 2005). Following ‘experiments’ with neoliberal governance in Mexico, Chile, and New York, the Regan administration in the USA and the Thatcher government in the UK began to embrace neoliberal economic policies (Harvey, 2005).
Neoliberalism became the Hegemonic global economic policy following the ‘purge’ of all Keynesian influences at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1982 (Harvey, 2005). Under neoliberalism, there has been a massive increase in Financialisaton, through a combination of technological advances and reduction or elimination of regulations (Harvey, 2005). The Power Elite had succeeded in creating an economic system which was “…associated with the restoration or reconstruction of [their] power…” (ibid, p19). However, this did not necessarily mean the restoration of power to the same people. Under neoliberalism, the Power Elite becomes the CEOs and top businessmen, technological entrepreneurs and media moguls (for example Rupert Murdoch) (ibid).
The Neoliberals and Education
Although neoliberalism was presented by its proponents as a solution to the economic issues of the late 1970s, this was not the primary motivation of the Power Elite: neoliberalism also represents a backlash against the social justice movements of the late 1960s (Harvey, 2005). Communist and Socialist parties were gaining ground throughout Europe and even in the US there were calls for reforms and state interventions, as Harvey (2005, p15) states “[t]here was, in this, a clear political threat to economic elites and ruling classes everywhere…”. Early neoliberals recognised that universities were a key site in their battle against these political threats to their power. Thus began the ‘neoliberal war on higher education’ - a war designed to undermine education as a public good and with the purpose of creating critical democratic citizens (Giroux, 2014; Giroux, 2005; Freire, 1974); to replace it with education as ‘training’ to meet the demands of the changing labour market (Sum and Jessop, 2013; Giroux, 2014).
The “Crisis of Democracy” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975) presents educational institutions as being ‘the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young’ and argues that throughout the 1960s and 70s these institutions had been failing to ‘properly indoctrinate’ the young (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013).
Reading the Powell Memo (1971) from today’s perspective it is clear to see how his plan was actioned. It is hard not to think that the Elite were successful in their take-over of the media and are very close to complete control of higher education. But the neoliberal war on education was not just about influencing teaching so that students are pro-business; it was also about a larger pedagogical project to undermine the democratic purpose of education (Giroux, 2014).
The ‘right kind’ of education
However, the focus of this education is important to the pedagogical project of neoliberalism; in this pedagogy education has come to mean ‘training’ (Giroux, 2014) (or what Freire (1974) referred to as ‘the banking model’ of education) and ‘knowledge’ has been replaced with ‘information’, in order to successfully commodify higher education (Kauppinen, 2014). Academic faculty have colluded with this commodification of ‘knowledge’ through their acceptance of their institutions using Intellectual Property Rights to marketise knowledge, and through their complicity in using this for their own entrepreneurial ends (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). This has been most common in Science, Technology and Medical fields, but also extends into the social sciences through the patenting/copywriting of standardised measures - a practice that is becoming increasingly common in Psychology for example. In neoliberal education all knowledge is ‘know-what’ knowledge, rather than ‘know-how’ and ‘know-who’. The former presents learning as solely about facts being transferred from ‘teacher’ to ‘student’; whereas the latter presents learning as developing skills in critical thinking, citizenship and solidarity (Kauppinen, 2014). As Giroux (2014, p6) states, “Critical learning has been replaced with mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge or authority. Pedagogies that unsettle common sense, make power accountable, and connect classroom knowledge to larger civic issues have become dangerous at all levels of schooling”. In the panel discussion mentioned earlier scholar Bruno della Chiesa argues that neoliberals need to ‘raise educational standards, but not too far’, because a truly educated populace would be ‘too dangerous’ for the power elite (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013).
This move to metrics and measurable outcomes of higher education provision is also being used to undermine particular subjects within higher education: the social sciences and humanities have come under increasing attack in recent years, with some disciplines on the verge of being completely eradicated (Swann, 2019). These tend to be the subjects and disciplines most linked to creating critical thinking citizens, such as Women’s Studies, Race Studies, Disability Studies, Philosophy, etc (Evans, 2019): subjects which have been dubbed “grievance studies” by the US right-wing (Mounk et al., 2018).
The reliance on ‘metrics’ and enshrining of quantitative measurements also has consequences on the types of knowledge which are considered valid. In the panel discussion della Chiesa refers to the “quantophrenia” of the Social Sciences; the move by the social scientists to rely on quantitative methods ‘in order to look more serious, like the natural sciences’. This obsession with numbers, della Chiesa goes on to argue, then produces research which is always only at a ‘surface’ level; it discourages any further in-depth analysis of what those numbers mean (Chomsky, della Chiesa and Gardner, 2013). This translates into research which can, for example, tell us how many people live below a certain level of poverty, but the idea of asking ‘why?’ those people are poor is considered radical.
The neoliberal university
Neoliberal marketisation of higher education is a global problem, from countries like the United States and Britain, to developing nations like Brazil, marketisation has become the chief organising principle of higher education policy (Tuckett, 2019). This has myriad negative effects on students, not least of which, the effect of encumbering them with huge amounts of debt upon graduation. But the effects on academic faculty are perhaps more prescient in discussions of the neoliberal pedagogical project. Marketisation has undermined the role of academic faculty in numerous ways; through metrics, increasingly impossible workloads, increased competition, pressure to publish, increased casualisation of the academic workforce and the clarion call of ‘student satisfaction’ (Knights and Richards, 2003a; Olssen and Peters, 2007; Wright, Cooper and Luff, 2017). Alongside this is the managerialism (Atkins and Vicars, 2016) and increased bureaucratic/administrative bloat that comes with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) behaving increasingly like profit making corporations (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004).
Consequences of neoliberalism
Harvey (2005) states that thirty years of neoliberalism have “…not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and even retailing” (p38). With neoliberalism the hegemonic global economic discourse for the last 3 decades, we have had sufficient time to assess the impact of its policies on economies, politics and people’s lives.
“Trump is the living symbol and embodiment of a political catastrophe made visible in the plague of a growing culture of unbridled and naked selfishness. The systemic erosion of public goods, the collapse of civic institutions, and a ruinous anti-intellectualism, that supports a contempt for evidence and reason, that has been decades in the making…”.
The war on higher education has had devasting effects within academe, for both staff and students: the constant push for recruitment means that there have been increases in course cohort sizes, but the need to keep costs low means that there have not been concomitant increases in staffing: meaning that ever larger groups of students are being taught by ever small proportions of academic faculty; students are encumbered with massive debts which force them into employment in order to pay back their loans; staff are over-worked, stressed and in trying to survive in a highly competitive environment, they are constrained in what and how they teach and are increasingly being forced into ‘cookie-cutter’ pedagogical models similar to the ‘teach-to-test’ ethos of compulsory education in the UK.
A pedagogy of justice
The neoliberals and the Power Elite have always known the power of Higher Education and academic faculty in shaping society, it explains their current attack on HE and on intellectualism in general. In order to defeat neoliberalism, current and future academic faculty need to: resist the marketisation of higher education and its consequences within their own institutions; reclaim the university as a public good, and defend what they do to a public that has nothing invested in higher education; and finally, to reinvent higher education, to create truly co-operative learning and learning as “Conscientização”, with the aim of creating citizens for whom the world is ‘never just enough’ (Giroux, 2017).
As universities are “institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young” (Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki, 1975) they are a key site in the fight against neoliberalism. Academic faculty (and others) who believe in higher education not just as a public good, but as an inalienable right for any democratic citizen, need to be able to defend this position against those with no stake in higher education (Giroux, 2003) . We need to be able to argue that higher education should be publicly funded and available to all. We need to defend education for its own sake, and for raising of critical consciousness. We need to be able to show how this type of education benefits everyone in society and so is worth paying for: not just for the economic competitiveness advantages it confers, but for its ability to constrain authoritarianism, to hold the Power Elite to account, to fight for and pursue social justice, and the end of oppression (Freire, 1974). We need to reclaim higher education as a public good, we need to fight for our students right to tuition free education and we need to aim for a radical pedagogy which raises consciousness and creates critically thinking citizens.
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