The exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all. — Mark Fisher
Since the 1980s, higher education has been subject to devastating attacks as a result of punishing neoliberal austerity policies and ongoing attempts by conservatives to both privatize and defund public institutions. Right-wing attacks on the public good, the corporatization and militarization of higher education and a growing authoritarianism in the culture have led, as Christopher Newfield observes, "to the abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses."
The effects are visible in the gutting of tenure-track positions, increases in tuition, an onslaught of administrative positions, and the redefinition of higher education as a competitive and profit-making institution. The attacks on tenure have been especially effective in transforming higher education into an adjunct of corporate interests. Writing in the College Post, Marianne Besas reports that "in 2018, 23.7 percent of faculty members at institutions across the country were tenured, and 10.2 percent were on a tenure track." Tenure, along with the power of faculty, is in absolute decline. Only about one in five of the overworked and beaten-down faculty members in the academic labor force have tenure.
At the same time, students are relegated to the status of clients. No longer viewed as a democratic public sphere, post-secondary education has forfeited its willingness, if not its responsibility, to instill in its students and the wider public the shared values, ideals and social practices crucial to developing democratic institutions and an informed and critically engaged public. Instead, it has become complicit with a cultural and political crisis — characterized by lies and bungling political leadership — which on the one hand has turned lethal with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and on the other hand has been mostly silent regarding the threat to democracy posed by the growing racism and authoritarianism in the wider society.
Under such circumstances, higher education has failed to create on a mass scale not only a shared national civic purpose, but also a wider formative culture promoting the habits, sensibilities, dispositions and values crucial to democracy's survival. It has detached itself from the obligations of citizenship and social responsibility, while harnessing itself to economic interests. Defined by neoliberal values, higher education has surrendered its purpose and mission to a culture of commercialism and exchange. The new normal in higher education is based on the brutalizing assumption that knowledge, ideas and visions are only valuable if they can be measured and aligned with the culture of business and the market. Everything is rated according to its monetary value and turned into an object of consumption — nothing appears to escape its regressive spiral of commodification, social atomization, and reification.
Neoliberalism freezes the scope, range and depth of education in the culture of market fluctuations and investor interests. This is especially detrimental to the role of higher education as a public good, considering that the fate of democracy's future is linked to the domain of culture — a domain in which people have to be educated critically in order to fight for securing freedom, equality, social justice, equal protection and human dignity. Agency is not being eliminated; it is being reconfigured in the image of an instrumental rationality, a market-driven model that conceals its own aggression in the name of choice, meritocracy and individual interests.
The signs of higher education's failure to define itself as a public good are everywhere, but such signs are particularly resonant in its indifference to the dark and menacing forces of a racist and totalitarian cultural politics that now engulfs American society. The collapse of conscience is widespread in a system of higher education that defines itself as a satellite of corporations. One consequence is a growing indifference to addressing larger political and social problems such as the rise of right-wing extremist movements, the spreading racial hatred and the increasing resort by the state to violence against Black people, undocumented immigrants, public health workers, school board members and women arguing for reproductive rights.
Without apology and most distinctively, the legacy of Jim Crow, with its layered racist rage and propensity for violence, has returned, asphyxiating the United States in a toxic cloud of voter suppression laws, the resurgence of police assaults against Black people and the emergence of a right-wing cultural politics. Cultural politics has become a powerful medium for social and civic death, endorsing white nationalism, pseudo-appeals to patriotic education and ongoing attempts by right-wing politicians to implement a form of apartheid pedagogy at all levels of schooling.
Rethinking cultural politics as an educational force
Education has always been a compelling element of politics yet is rarely understood as a crucial site of struggle over culture, agency, identities, values and the future itself. As Stuart Hall once noted, what has been lacking is a sense of politics being educative in order to change the way people see things and understand the larger world. The latter is an especially important insight given how the right-wing has weaponized social media as a pedagogical medium in order to spread its racist and anti-democratic ideas and values. Driving such a politics is a counterrevolutionary political and educational movement whose methods and goals are to destroy civic literacy and freedom and undermine the values and institutions necessary for sustaining human development, the planet and a thriving democracy.
What is new in the current historical moment is that right-wing cultural politics have influenced higher education and the larger society with unprecedented success. That is, as Paul Gilroy says, "the weaponization of culture and information has been much more successfully exploited by the neofascists than their disorientated opponents."
The culture wars waged against "critical race theory" have a broader political function, in that they are part of a larger battle waged by right-wing white nationalists to control and destroy education as a critical site of power, especially in its capacity to foster the common good and equip young people to hold power accountable. In the current historical moment, educating a critically literate citizenry has become dangerous. In the age of Trumpism, culture has become a battlefield, and the war is being won by extremists in the political and corporate worlds.
The current wave of Republican Party extremists understand a fundamental lesson about the power of culture, one that was brilliantly articulated by the great Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci. He noted that culture deploys power and that such power is always pedagogical. Moreover, in the current age culture is a crucial site and weapon of power and has assumed an unparalleled significance in the structure and organization of agency, identities, knowledge, social relations and the question of who inhabits the public sphere and who doesn't.
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Unfortunately, resistance on the part of universities to the cultural assault waged by the current wave of white supremacist politicians has been timid. Nobel-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee is right in arguing that resistance has been "weak and ill organised; routed, the professors [have] beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire."
Repressive forms of education no longer exist on the margins of society, nor are they present in only public and higher education. They are now being enabled from the centers of power. Education infused with a neoliberal racist orthodoxy now permeates a range of corporate-controlled sites that extend from newspapers to the new digital platforms, which inundate the public with massive amounts of information defined mostly by the script of cost-benefit analysis and the need for ever-increasing profits. At the core of these repressive educational practices is a resurgence of white nationalism, a culture of fear and contempt for the truth. One result is not only the deterioration of political culture but also, as Gilroy observes, "The archive of ineffable horror [has drifted] into an indeterminate space where information is untrusted."
White nationalist educational practices, infused with neoliberal racist orthodoxy and the politics of disposability, operate increasingly through state repression, the passing of racist and sexist policies, and sanctioned police violence. They are also present in the colonization of identities, the production of manufactured ignorance and the power of a cultural politics that creates zones of abandonment where those marginalized by race, class, and religion become voiceless and unknowable. This widespread assault on rationality and truth is part of an image-based and ocular pedagogy engaged in a politics of falsehoods and erasure. In its most extreme pedagogical forms, a politics of racial hatred and exclusion cloaks itself in the false claims of "patriotism" and the right-wing call for "patriotic education," functioning largely as a form of trickery, deceit, and organized irresponsibility.
Historical amnesia coupled with a culture of lies runs amok in American society, assuming the force of a national disease, corrupting the public imagination and civic culture. Education as a vehicle for white supremacy now moves between the reactionary policies of Republican legislators who use the law to turn their states into white nationalist factories and a right-wing social media machine that uses the internet, Facebook and other online services to spread racial hatred and undermine the necessity to be reminded of the horrors of history that are resurfacing once again. White supremacy has once again turned deadly and has put democracy on trial.
The spectacle of Trumpism and its brew of white supremacist ideology and disdain for the truth undergirds the further collapse of democratic visions in higher education and broader public spheres. This is reinforced by a pandemic-generated obsession in higher education with methodologies, the growing dominance of instrumental reason and, as Peter Fleming observes, the return of "unforgiving management hierarchies that have replaced academic judgment, collegiality and professional common sense."
Universities increasingly define themselves as part of a business culture and education industry, which "incentivize students to envision themselves not as citizens of a republic but as self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers." This shift away from its civic mission makes it all the easier for higher education to become obsessed with technocratic methods focusing on delivery platforms such as Zoom and Teams. The robotic language of instrumental rationality is everywhere in higher education. The English critic Marina Warner sums it up well:
As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, so language is suborned to its ends. We have all heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated a digitally generated voice. Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university – through 'targets', 'benchmarks', time-charts, league tables, 'vision statements', 'content providers' [terms] that accumulate like dental plaque.
The Return of Jim Crow politics and the attack on "critical race theory"
Jim Crow politics are back with a vengeance, worn as a badge of honor. The signs are everywhere. Both during and in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party has dropped any pretense to democracy in its affirmation of authoritarian politics and embrace of white supremacy. Moreover, it has become a party of unhinged cruelty. This has been evident in the weaponizing of identity, support for a range of discriminatory policies of exclusion, construction of a border wall that has become a symbol of resurgent nativism and, under the Trump regime, the internment of children separated from undocumented parents at the southern border.
The rush to construct a homegrown form of authoritarianism is also clear in the passing of a barrage of voter suppression laws introduced in Republican-controlled state legislatures, all based on baseless claims of voter fraud. Voter suppression has become the new currency of a rebranded form of racialized fascist politics. As of Sept. 1, 361 bills had been put into play in 47 states, while 19 states had enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, particularly poor Black people.
Voter suppression laws breathe new life into white supremacy and fit nicely into the racist argument that whites are under siege by people of color who are attempting to dethrone and replace them. In this case, such laws, along with ongoing attacks on equality and social justice, are defended by right-wing extremists as justifiable measures to protect whites from the "contaminating" influence of immigrants, Black people and others considered unworthy of occupying and participating in the public sphere and democratic process. Similarly, voter suppression laws are defended as legitimate attempts to provide proof that votes are cast by "real Americans," code for defining people of color as "counterfeit citizens." In actuality, these laws are not only racist in intent but also meant to enable permanent minority rule for the Republican Party, the endpoint of which is a form of authoritarianism.
The attacks on critical race theory are a barely disguised effort by white supremacists to define who counts as an American, and form part of a long legacy in which those groups deemed unworthy of citizenship disappear. The language of historical and pedagogical erasure extends from the genocide inflicted on Native Americans to the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. It includes the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the current rise of the racialized carceral state. Forgetting has become a convenient adaptive strategy for privileging the eternal present while emptying the past of its contradictions and genocidal horrors. There is more at work here than the whitening of collective identity, the public sphere and American history. There are invocations of whiteness, as Paul Gilroy suggests, that enhance "the allure of [a] rebranded fascism."
The Republican Party's labeling of critical race theory as "ideological or faddish" both denies the history of racism as well as the ways in which it is enforced through policy, laws and institutions. For many Republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persists in American society. For instance, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has stated, "There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money." DeSantis has not only labeled critical race theory as "false history," but has extended the discourse of his unhinged attack on any vestige of critical education and critical race theory to almost unrecognizably repressive lengths. As Eric Lutz points out, DeSantis has taken
the deranged culture war a step farther, signing laws that will require students and staff at public universities to be surveyed on their political beliefs; bar higher education institutions from preventing access to ideas students may find "uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive;" and force-feeding K-12 students "portraits in patriotism" that contrasts America with communist and totalitarian regimes.
In this updated version of apartheid pedagogy and historical cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated with a form of racial hatred, leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn or confront the history and tenacity of racism in American society in the public imagination. Apartheid pedagogy transforms the criticism of racial injustice and structural racism into a breach of law and makes it an object of malignant state oppression and violence. Borrowing from Judith Butler's critique of the criminalization of knowledge in higher education, apartheid pedagogy interprets the call for democracy as sedition, and the call for freedom as a call to violence.
The attack on critical race theory restricts what educators can say and teach in the classroom and does so by invoking the language of fear and retaliation. Many teachers are not just confused about what they can and cannot say in the classroom about social justice issues but also live in daily fear over the consequences they may face "for even broaching nuanced conversations about racism and sexism." Such fears point to more than the curtailing of freedom of expression and the idealizing of history by whitewashing it. They also identify America's slide into a rebranded fascist politics that is difficult to ignore. The threat of white supremacy has even been acknowledged by President Joe Biden in a speech he delivered marking the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre. Biden warned that U.S. democracy was not only in danger but that Americans had to recognize and challenge the "deep roots of racial terror."
Legalizing racial oppression and apartheid pedagogy
The racialized climate of fear, intimidation and censorship is spreading in the United States. This is evident in the fact that anti-CRT bills have become law in eight states, while 15 state legislatures across the country have introduced bills to prevent or limit teachers from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in American society. These reactionary attacks on critical thought and emancipatory forms of pedagogy echo an earlier period in American history. Such attacks are reminiscent of the McCarthy and Red Scare period of the 1950s when heightened paranoia over the threat of communism resulted in a slew of laws that banned the teaching of material deemed unpatriotic "and required professors to swear loyalty oaths."
Such repression is never far from an abyss of ignorance. Right-wing attacks on critical race theory also ignore work by prominent Black scholars ranging from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to Angela Y. Davis and Audre Lorde. There is no mention of Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory in the 1980s. Nor is there room for complexity, evidence or facts, just as there is no room for either a critique of structural racism or the actual assumptions and influence that make up CRT's body of work. Such attacks raise fundamental questions about the goal of higher education and the role of academics in a time of mounting authoritarianism.
This is especially true at a time when higher education has become a site of derision, an object of censorship and a way of demonizing faculty and students who critically address matters of racial inequality, social injustice and other crucial social problems. Let's be clear. For the Republican Party, higher education has become a battleground for conducting a race war waged in the spirit of the Confederacy, conducted through the twin registers of censorship and indoctrination.
Right-wing politicians now use education and the power of persuasion as weapons to discredit any critical approach to grappling with the history of racial injustice and white supremacy. In doing so, they undermine and discredit the critical faculties necessary for students and others to examine history as a resource in order to "investigate the core conflict between a nation founded on radical notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, and a nation built on slavery, exploitation, and exclusion." Novelist Francine Prose observes that educating young people through the indoctrinating policies and practices of "patriotic education" will further America's slide into
a nation of con artists and their hapless marks, a country of liars and of people who have never been taught how to tell when they are being lied to…. Children who are prohibited from discussing the most critical issues of the day will gravitate into progressively more atomized and irreconcilable factions, unable to participate in the free and open exchange of ideas on which our democracy depends.
Apartheid pedagogy is about denial and disappearance. It promotes a manufactured ignorance in the service of civic death and a flight from ethical and social responsibility. The right-wing attempt to impose "patriotic education" on educators is part of a longstanding counterrevolution that conservatives have waged since the student revolts of the 1960s. The calls in that decade to democratize the university and open it up to minorities of race and color were considered by many liberals and conservatives as dangerous expressions of dissent. In one famous instance, this was duly noted by ruling-class elites such as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in the Trilateral Commission of 1973, who complained about what was called an "excess of democracy" in the United States.
This counterrevolution also fueled the ongoing corporatization of the university, in which business models defined how the university is governed, models that viewed faculty as part-time workers and students merely as customers and consumer-spectators. Another register of this ongoing counterrevolution with its embrace of apartheid pedagogy includes an attempt by university trustees to remove faculty from making decisions regarding matters of administrative governance, faculty appointments and control of tenure.
In addition, right-wing legislators have introduced laws to limit funding for higher education institutions that teach critical race theory. For instance, Ohio state Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, a Republican, introduced a bill titled the "Promoting Education Not Indoctrination Act," which threatens to cut state funding by 25% to any Ohio public university that allows the teaching of critical race theory. Arthur's disdain for democracy was also evident in her attempts to erase from state-mandated curriculum guidelines any mention of the notion of the common good, a view in sympathy with her repugnant views of racism, environmentalism and critical thinking itself.
Such attacks are being funded by foundations such as the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, which often rely on the endorsement of conservative scholars such as Thomas Sowell. Some of the most powerful enablers of the attack on "anti-racist programs" in higher education and elsewhere include organizations such as the Koch brothers' foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The latter is particularly pernicious given that it increasingly provides the template for anti-critical race theory bills, which are then used by many state legislators. This is apartheid pedagogy parading as educational reform.
Rethinking higher education as a democratic public sphere
The U.S. slide into the chasm of white supremacy demands a revitalized understanding and rethinking of the relationship between democracy and higher education. One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students and others is the need to address the role and mission of higher education in a time of tyranny. Central to such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy. What will it take for higher education not to abandon its role as a democratic public sphere? What work must educators do to create the economic, political and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the general public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? What kind of language is necessary for higher education to redefine its mission, one that enables faculty and students to work toward a different future than one that echoes the authoritarian present, to confront the unspeakable, to recognize themselves as agents, not victims, and to muster up the courage to act in the service of a substantive and inclusive democracy? In a world where there is an increasing neglect of democratic and egalitarian principles, what will it take to educate young people and the broader public to be critically engaged citizens?
Addressing this challenge means recognizing that over the last 40 years, under the reign of neoliberalism, the role of education in cultivating a critical citizenry capable of participating in and shaping a democratic society has been undermined, if not lost. Lost also is an educational vision that takes people beyond the world of common sense, functions as a form of provocation, teaches them to be creative, exposes individuals to a variety of great traditions, embraces the arts and creates the pedagogical conditions for individuals to expand the range of human possibilities.
Under the rule of a market-based society, higher education is largely defined as a financial investment whose goal is to ensure that young people are trained to compete in a global economy. In this logic, colleges and universities are reduced to sites for training students for the workforce — a reductive vision now being imposed on higher education by Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Netflix and Google that advocate what they call the entrepreneurial goal of education.
Increasingly aligned with neoliberal interests, higher education is mostly primed for teaching business principles and corporate values, while university administrators are prized as CEOs or bureaucrats in an audit culture. Many colleges and universities have been McDonaldized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, This results in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu while devaluing knowledge that stresses humanistic values.
In the age of precarity and flexibility, the majority of faculty have been reduced to part-time positions, have been subjected to low wages, have lost control over the conditions of their labor, and have seen their benefits slashed or eliminated. Many of these academics are barely able to make ends meet because of their impoverished salaries, and some even receive food stamps.
If faculty are treated like service workers, students fare no better, and are relegated to the status of customers and clients. They are not only inundated with the competitive, privatized and market-driven values of neoliberalism, but are also punished by those values in the form of exorbitant tuition rates, astronomical debts owed to banks and other financial institutions and, in too many cases, a lack of meaningful future opportunities once they graduate.
What might it mean to make pedagogy meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative? What might it mean to defend education as a bulwark of a democratic society and use higher education as a protective space where young people can articulate their needs and learn how to write themselves back into the script of democracy?
Given the crisis of education, agency and memory that haunts the current historical conjuncture, educators need a new political and pedagogical language. Such a language needs to be self-reflective and directive without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that education is always political because it presupposes a vision of the future, legitimizes specific forms of knowledge, values and social relationships and, in doing so, produces particular forms of agency.
Educators also need to connect the rigor of their scholarship with the clarity necessary to address a wider public. They must be attentive to the everyday conditions that shape people's lives, and be willing and able to speak to them. In this case, academics need to use a language in which people can recognize themselves and the problems they face. They need to merge theoretical rigor with the language of accessibility, without compromising either. At stake here is a pedagogical principle that recognizes that for a successful mode of communication to take place, there has to be a moment of identification on the part of the reader. To put it differently, such interventions must engage in a form of pedagogical recognition that sheds light on the everyday problems under which most people labor in the public domain.
There can be no authentic politics without a pedagogy of identification. Lacking this understanding, pedagogy all too easily either becomes irrelevant or is reduced to a form of academic jargon, one that assaults and shames, in one instance, and obfuscates and confuses in the other. At the same time, if academics are going to function as public intellectuals, they need to combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen while developing a language that connects everyday troubles to wider structures and presses the claim for economic and social justice. Such a language must offer a comprehensive politics capable of connecting diverse issues, move beyond a regressive notion of self-interest, reject a notion of freedom tied exclusively to consumerism and individualized responsibility, and develop a form of pedagogical citizenship that, when practiced thoughtfully, embraces a solidarity grounded in mutual responsibilities. In addition, such intellectuals can develop modes of pedagogy, along with a broader comprehensive vision of education and schooling, that are capable of winning struggles against those who would deny education its critical function — and this must apply to all forms of dogmatism and political purity across the ideological spectrum.
One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students and others is the need to address the question of what higher education should accomplish in a democracy. How can educational and pedagogical practices be connected to the resurrection of historical memory, new modes of solidarity, a resurgence of the radical imagination and broad-based struggles for an insurrectional democracy? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism's most brutal weapon: "the slow cancellation of the future"?
Such a vision suggests resurrecting a democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, and which elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes and market values, and an unreflective immersion in the crude empiricism of a data-obsessed market-driven society. Education and pedagogy should provide the conditions for young people to think about keeping democracy alive and vibrant, not simply training students to be workers. Yes, we must educate young people with the skills they need to get jobs. But as educators we must also teach them to learn, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2001, "to live with less or no misery [and] to fight against those social sources" that cause war, destruction of the environment, "inequality, unhappiness, and needless human suffering."
As Christopher Newfield argues, "democracy needs a public," and higher education has a crucial role to play in this regard as a democratic public good rather than defining itself through the market-based values of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, if such a role is to emerge, the conditions of labor for faculty have to change. Educators must be given the opportunity to speak the truth to the dominated, and bring ideas to the public realm that bear on society as a whole. This is especially important at a time when neoliberalism, through the dictates of a finance-obsessed managerial elite, overwhelms faculty and students with what Terry Eagleton has called "commodity breeding." The heads of universities are expected to govern as if they were running Goldman Sachs, the value of research is determined by its ability to secure grant funding, and faculty are expected to occupy academic silos from which they preach market values and disciplinary irrelevance.
Instead of students being provided with opportunities for civic responsibility and cultural literacy, they are offered high tuition rates, student centers that mimic the mall and crushing debts that close off the dreams of a dignified future. What gets lost here are not only radical ideas, socially engaged students and socially responsible academics, but also, in Eagleton's words, "the very notion that there could be a serious alternative to the present." As universities are turned into training centers, no longer invested in the life of the mind and its crucial connection to the common good, the toxic cloud of fascism and white supremacy expands, engulfing the nation in a fog of anti-intellectualism, manufactured ignorance, hate and a growing propensity for violence.
One of the most serious challenges facing administrators, faculty and students in colleges and universities is the task of developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect classroom knowledge, values and social problems with the larger society, and do so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people to translate private troubles into wider systemic issues while transforming their hidden despair and private grievances into critical narratives and public transcripts. At best such transcripts can be transformed into forms of public dissent, or what might be called moments of rupture or empowering transgressions. Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging, curious, reflective and independent — qualities that are indispensable for students if they are to make vital judgments and choices about participating in and shaping decisions that affect everyday life, institutional reform and governmental policy.
Resistance in this sense begins with the refusal to accept a crudely functional view of education that only values those modes of research, knowledge and teaching that can turn a profit. It rejects educational views that consign administrators, faculty and students to the prison-house of common sense and cynicism. In this instance, education becomes a terrain of struggle, which refuses one's erasure or voicelessness and resists the dictates of an audit culture. It is a type of resistance that speaks out against the power of bean counters to align educational research with the idolatry of data, which attempts to define the unmeasurable, promotes a deadening instrumental rationality that suffocates consciousness and rewards empirical frenzies that turn courageous ideas into ashes, all the while degrading civic virtue and ignoring the dark shadow of a fascist politics engulfing the globe.
Elements of an alternative vision for higher education
I want to offer several recommendations, however incomplete, that provide an alternative to some of the oppressive conditions now shaping higher education in the age of multiple pandemics and the rise of fascist politics.
First, higher education needs to reclaim and expand its democratic vocation and, in doing so, align itself with a vision that embraces its mission as a public good. Educators need to promote a national conversation in which higher education is defended as a democratic public sphere, and the classroom as a site of deliberative inquiry, dialogue and critical thinking. The project of defining higher education as a democratic public sphere should also provide the platform for a more expressive commitment to reaching across national boundaries in order to develop an international social movement in defense of public goods. This is a vision driven not by profits, instrumental rationality, and military interests but by the battle over democracy itself.
Second, educators need to acknowledge and make good on the claim that there is no democracy without informed and knowledgeable citizens. This suggests placing ethics, civic literacy, social responsibility and compassion at the forefront of our pedagogical practices. This necessitates taking seriously those modes of knowledge, ideas, values, traditions and histories that promote a sense of dignity, self-reflection and compassion. In addition, students need to learn to understand how power works across social, cultural and political institutions. This is crucial if they are to learn how to govern rather than merely be governed. Education should be a place where students realize themselves primarily as critically engaged and informed citizens contributing not simply to their own self-interest or self-development but to the well-being of society as a whole.
Third, higher education needs to be viewed as a right and needs to be free, as it is in many countries such as Germany, France, Norway and Finland. When education is not free, it not only limits access to those who lack the wealth and resources to get into higher education, but also allows higher education to function as a sorting machine that largely reproduces social, racial and class hierarchies. Moreover, free access to higher education enriches a student body, through its diversity and the richness of its possibilities, to promote dialogue across a range of identities, backgrounds, religions, gender, class and ideological positions. Such diversity keeps alive the critical function of higher education at the level of everyday classroom and social interactions. In addition, by not saddling young people with crippling debt — a form of colonial control — it gives them the opportunity to choose careers dedicated to public service.
Fourth, educators need to enable students to engage in multiple literacies extending from print and visual culture to digital culture. They need to become border-crossers, who can think dialectically and learn not only how to consume culture but also how to produce it. This presupposes learning how to situate ideas, facts and knowledge historically and relationally. Not only does historical memory become a consequential resource for thinking and acting, it also enables students to connect isolated issues to a comprehensive vision of society that does not rely on banking modes of education, insular disciplinary narratives and deadening forms of instrumental learning. A critical pedagogy needs to incorporate practices that enable students to become cultural producers both to expand their sense of agency and politics and their ability to shape the world in which they live.
Fifth, critical education is about more than the search for truth, appropriating work skills and developing a broad and comprehensive form of literacy; it is also about the practice of freedom. Such a task suggests that critical pedagogy should shift not only the way people think but also encourage them to shape the world in which they find themselves for the better. As the practice of freedom, critical pedagogy arises from the conviction that educators and other cultural workers have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense. This is a view of pedagogy that should disturb, inspire and energize a vast array of individuals and publics.
Such pedagogical practices should enable students to interrogate common-sense understandings of the world, take risks in their thinking, however difficult, and be willing to take a stand for free inquiry in the pursuit of truth, multiple ways of knowing, mutual respect and civic values in the pursuit of social justice. Students need to learn how to think dangerously, push at the frontiers of knowledge, and support the notion that the search for justice is never finished and that no society is ever just enough. These are not merely methodical considerations but also moral and political practices, because they presuppose the creation of students who can imagine a future in which justice, equality, freedom and democracy matter and are attainable.
Sixth, in opposition to increasingly dominant instrumental views of education, I want to argue for a notion of education that is inherently political — one that relentlessly questions the kinds of labor, practices and forms of teaching, research and modes of evaluation that are enacted in higher education. While such a pedagogy does not offer guarantees, it defines itself as a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations, because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, our physical and social environment and the future itself. What it rejects is a form of politicizing education that imposes dogmatic certainties, refuses critical dialogue and engages in what might be called a form of pedagogical terrorism. In opposition to politicizing education, political education is directive and opens up the possibilities for students to learn how power works, engage in critical analysis, think beyond common-sense assumptions, learn how to be self-reflective and engage the conditions that bear down on their lives.
Neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. It does not exist outside relations of power, values and politics. Educators need to cast a critical eye on those forms of knowledge and social relations that define themselves through a conceptual purity and political innocence, clouding the fact that the alleged neutrality on which they stand is already grounded in ethico-political choices and never removed from relations of power. Higher education is a crucial space for creating knowledgeable, critical and engaged citizens.
Seventh, another serious challenge facing educators is the need to make despair unconvincing and social change a possibility. Despair does more than undercut social change; it also isolates, alienates and ultimately depoliticizes people often paralyzed by cynicism. Without a mutually informing language of critique and what I call educated hope, educators become complicit with a culture of ignorance and repression now being reproduced at the highest levels of power, one that has become a signature feature of the current Republican Party. The effects of such ignorance are on full display when school board members are threatened for implementing rules to save children's lives, COVID-19 testing centers are attacked, adults who wear masks are bullied while accompanying their children to school and science is undermined through the proliferation of conspiracy theories. This suggests not only a failure of politics and the collapse of conscience, but also the failure of education.
A radical shift in consciousness on the part of the public is needed in order for matters of truth, justice and science to offer the resources necessary to protect human life and sustain an informed public. Learned ignorance is never innocent. In the face of a tsunami of lies, hope becomes senseless, and ignorance combines with rage and conspiracy theories as the first resort of the powerless. When shaping a mass movement, ignorance does more than expand the disintegration of political culture; it also makes possible the reproduction of the horrors of racial cleansing and violence as tools of governance.
If higher education defaults on its role as a critical institution, it becomes either irrelevant or complicit with totalitarian politics. In the face of the rise of white supremacy and a fascist politics, students need to stretch their imagination to be able to think beyond the limits of their own experience. They also need to reject the disparaging notion that the future is nothing more than a mirror image of the present. In this instance, I am not referring to a romanticized and empty notion of making the impossible possible. I am suggesting an education that refuses an obsession with self-interest, expands the imagination, teaches students to live without illusions and embraces the practical difficulties and risks involved in meaningful struggles for real change, while at the same time being radically optimistic.
The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman insisted that the bleakness and dystopian politics of our times necessitates the ability to dream otherwise, to imagine a society "which thinks it is not just enough, which questions the sufficiency of any achieved level of justice and considers justice always to be a step or more ahead. Above all, it is a society which reacts angrily to any case of injustice and promptly sets about correcting it." While hope has fallen on hard times under the dark shadow of the resurgence of white supremacy, a sense of collective passion and struggle is far from a historical relic.
As educators, we have a responsibility — as Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, once warned — to recognize that "Every age has its own fascism." In a society in which democracy is under siege, it is crucial to remember that alternative futures are possible and that acting on these beliefs is a precondition for making radical change possible. At stake here is the courage to take on the challenge of what kind of world we want. What kind of future do we want to build for our children? How might we reassert a notion of the social that reclaims through the radical imagination the terms through which we are connected to each other and the planet? What is the role of hope in an age of racialized visceral terror? Philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted that "hope taps into our deepest experiences and that without it reason and justice cannot blossom."
In his "Talk to Teachers," James Baldwin went a step further, adding a sense of urgency and a call for resistance to this notion of hope. He wrote: "The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible has to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change."
Baldwin's words are more resonant today than ever before. Democracy is in free fall and has reached a dangerous turning point. The horrors of a past committed to racial cleansing and a fascist politics are with us once again. But the tactics used in the past to fight fascism must be rethought and updated. The power to change consciousness by making education central to politics has to be married to the need to change material relations of power. There is more at stake here than the repudiation of manufactured ignorance, the scourge of white supremacy and a corrupt political system. In the shadows of this escalating crisis, it is crucial to mobilize a mass movement to uncover and fight on multiple levels this rebranded notion of fascism and its mounting wreckage before hope becomes an empty slogan and democracy a relic of the past.
More on the education wars of the Trump era:
- Betsy DeVos and the politics of fear: A not-so-fond farewell to Trump's education secretary
- How higher education has been weaponized in the age of Trump — and how it can be redeemed
- This is real resistance: Teachers strike back against neoliberal assault on public education