Sunday, December 22, 2013

RETHINKING THE UNIVERSITY IN AN AGE OF EDUCATIONAL CRISIS: LOOKING BACK AND MOVING FORWARD



Harry Targ

Measuring Educational Outcomes

A Purdue University press release of December 17, 2013 announced a dramatic new collaboration with the Gallup polling organization (and funded by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation) to “conduct the largest representative study of college graduates in U.S. history….The Gallup-Purdue Index will provide the first measure that evaluates the long-term success of graduates in their pursuit of ‘great jobs’ and ‘great lives.’ ”  

While the details of the study instrument are still to be disclosed, the Purdue/Gallup/Lumina collaboration has raised a variety of concerns from scholars and other citizens. Why is Purdue collaborating with the much criticized Gallup organization? Who is the Lumina Foundation? Why is the large body of research on issues of educational impacts not being considered? Have reservations about survey research as a tool to understand and predict outcomes related to the college experience being considered in the research agenda? And, finally, is there a non-transparent political agenda from the federal government, state government, prominent institutions of higher education, the corporate sector or all of the above to restructure the role of faculty, students, traditional curricula, in the 21st century? 

Becoming an Educator

These questions reminded me of some of my own experiences as a professor who came to Purdue University in 1967, unclear about my own goals about what I wanted to achieve as an educator. As a young professor entering the teaching profession in the midst of campus activism and debates about race, class, gender, escalating war, and environmental devastation, I came to the view that the university was a place where students and teachers could reflect on this complicated world in a setting that encourages open discussion and debate. Education for careers and happiness were surely important to the educational process but so was understanding and reflection about how all of us (students and teachers) could help make the world a better place.

I reported on some of these reflections in an essay (“Higher Education Today: Theory and Practice,” MRzine, 2009) some of which is revised, edited and presented below.

When I came to Purdue University, I was assigned to teach courses on introductory international relations. I was troubled by the fact that the professional literature in the field did not help me understand the escalating war in Vietnam.  I was also increasingly troubled by the assumption that it was not my place as a professor to publicly comment on or otherwise actively engage in expressions of my informed views on United States foreign policy, as teacher and citizen.

I also started teaching a course with the ambiguous title "Contemporary Political Problems," and through it my students and I explored the writings of the day that we thought bore upon our place in the world.  These ranged from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), to the Port Huron Statement (1995), to Camus' The Rebel (1992), to C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite (1959), to William Appleman Williams' The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972).  Later on I added literature from anarchist, utopian and Marxist traditions.

Almost invariably, our discussions ended up exploring what the various theorists and activists we read thought about education.  We added to our readings in these courses essays on education by Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-Education and the Community of Scholars (1964); Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society: Social Questions (1999); Jonathan Kozol, Death at an Early Age (1968); Herbert Kohl, 36 Children (1988); Robert Paul Wolff, The Idea of the University (1970); and  Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1963).  Later writers such as Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000), Henry Giroux.The University in Chains (2007), Peter McLaren, Che Guevara, Paulo Friere, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, (2000), and other radical educational theorists continued the discussion. When Howard Zinn published A People’s History of the United States, (1980) my students and I discussed the author’s claims about who makes history and the various ways in which it is made.

Out of all this, I began to develop an analysis of the political and economic contexts of higher education; a sense of the contradictory character of education, particularly higher education; a conception of how my education had been shaped by the Cold War and U.S. empire; how the modern university was "contested terrain" (a metaphor drawn from writings on worker/management conflict) as to ideas and behavior; how "theory and practice" were connected; and, for me, what the obligations of the educator were in the modern world.

Interests Served by Higher Education

In his presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 2000, Robert Perrucci refers to "Galileo's crime."  He argues that while most claim that Galileo was punished for proposing that the planets moved around the sun, others have pointed out that he was condemned because "he chose to communicate his findings about the earth and the sun, not in Latin, the medium of the educated elite, but in Italian, the public vernacular, parola del popolo," Robert Perrucci, “Inventing Social Justice: SSSP and the Twenty-First Century, Social Problems, May, 2001.

This thought, for me, constitutes a parable for the history of higher education as we know it.  In my view it is not unfair to suggest that institutions of higher education have always been created and shaped by the interests of the ruling classes and elites in the societies in which they exist.  This means they serve to reinforce the economic, political, ideological, and cultural interests of those who create them, fund them, and populate them. 

In Robert Paul Wolff ‘s book, The Ideal of the University (1970), the author identifies the historical university as the training ground for theology, literature, and law.  In each case, sacred or secular canonical texts were studied with a microscope.  Their study was designed to reify and transmit the core knowledge claims, ethics, and laws across generations.  Wolff's description, quoted below and written forty years ago, about a reality hundreds of years earlier might still resonate with us today:

Thus the activity of scholarship is in the first instance a religious and literary activity, directed toward a given corpus of texts, either divine or secular, around which a literature of commentary accumulated.  The corpus is finite, clearly defined, growing slowly as each stage in the progress of Western civilization deposited its masterpieces in the Great Tradition.  Though the tradition may contain pregnant, emotionally powerful commentaries upon life and men's affairs, the scholar's concern is with the textual world, not with the world about which the text speaks.  (Wolff, 5)

Wolff (1970), James Berlin, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, Refiguring College English Studies, (1996), David N. Smith, Who Rules the Universities? An Essay on Class Analysis (1974) as well as others added to this discussion an analysis of how the university changed in the late nineteenth century to serve the needs of rising industrial capitalism in Europe and North America.  The university shifted in the direction of serving new masters: from the clerics and judges to the capitalists.  Plans were instituted in elite universities to develop "departments," compartmentalizing knowledge so it could be fashioned for use in research and development, human relations, making the modern corporation more efficient, developing communications and accounting skills, and developing good citizens.  Elite universities initiated the changes that made higher education more compatible with and an instrumentality of modern capitalism.  The model then "trickled down" to less prestigious universities, which in the end became even more effective developers and purveyors of knowledge for use in capitalist societies.

Wolff quoted Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system and the target of the student movement in that state in the 1960s, who hinted at this theme of connectedness between certain societal needs, power, and education, and a parallelism between the era of the industrial revolution and the quarter century after World War II:

The American University is currently undergoing its second great transformation.  The first occurred during roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the land grant movement and German intellectualism were together bringing extraordinary change.  The current transformation will cover roughly the quarter century after World War II.  The university is being called upon to educate previously unimagined numbers of students; to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activities with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents.  By the end of this period, there will be a truly American university; an institution unique in world history, an institution not looking to other models but serving, itself, as a model for universities in other parts of the globe.  (Wolff, 33-34)   

For Kerr, the modern "multiversity," responding to the needs of society as reflected in federal and corporate research funding, was obliged to produce scientists, engineers, and doctors, what we call today the STEM fields.  This university, he said, was "a model" for higher education around the world.

During World War II and the Cold War, the modern university began to serve powerful new masters.  As Charles Wilson, president of General Electric, advocated in 1944, there was a need to maintain the coalition of forces that defeated fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in Asia, to stave off new threats to U.S. and global capitalism, and to forestall a return to the grim Depression economy of the 1930s.  To do that, Wilson said, we needed to justify the need for government (particularly the defense department)/corporate/and university collaboration, a collaboration that did so much to secure victory during the war.  His vision was referred to as "a permanent war economy."  Shortly after the war that justification was created, the threat of international communism.  The military, defense-related corporations, and research institutions had a reason to work together: to lobby for dollars, do the research, produce the technologies, train future scientists and engineers for the Cold War, and educate the broader non-technically trained population in and out of the university to accept the basic parameters of the Cold War struggle. 

Henry Giroux paraphrased President Eisenhower's warning, referred to above: ". . . the conditions for production of violence, the amassing of huge profits by defense industries, and the corruption of government officials in the interest of making war the organizing principle of society had created a set of conditions in which the very idea of democracy, if not the possibility of politics itself, was at stake." (Giroux, 14-15).

What kind of claims can be derived from these formative statements; the variety of literatures of more recent vintage,  arguments of educational theorists such as Giroux; and our observations of universities, curricula, and academic professions?

First, higher education remains subject to, influenced by, and financially beholden to governments and corporations.  These influences profoundly shape what professors and graduate students teach and research.

Second, as history shows, conceptions of disciplines, fields, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, fundamental truths pervasive in disciplines (rational choice in economics and the pursuit of power in political science) and the academic organization of universities are shaped by economic interest and political power.

Third, the structure of academic professions -- professional associations, journals, peer review, the validation of professional work, definitions of the substance of courses, dominant paradigms governing disciplines -- is largely shaped by economic and political interest.

Fourth, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the interests of the status quo, a status quo, again governed by economic and political interest.

Discourse and Contradiction in Higher Education: The University as “Contested Terrain”

It would be a mistake to leave the impression that all that the university does is diabolical, even as it is shaped by and serves the dominant economic and political interests in society.  Within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962) called "normal science," researchers and educators have made enormous contributions to society.  But even this is not the whole story.

There emerged over the centuries and decades a view that this institution, the university, should have a special place in society.  It should be, in a term Christopher Lasch used to refer to the family, "a haven in a heartless world."  Through its seclusion, professors could reflect critically on their society and develop knowledge that could be productively used by society to solve human puzzles and problems.  This view of higher education diametrically conflicts with the reality described above.

The Galileo case suggests he was punished for his theoretical and communications transgressions by the academic hierarchy of his day.  More recently, scholars such as Scott Nearing were fired for opposing World War I, and over the years hundreds more for being communists, eccentrics, radicals of one sort or another, or for challenging accepted professional paradigms.  Of particular virulence have been periods of "red scares," when faculty who taught and/or engaged in activism outside some mainstream were labeled "communists," which by definition meant they were traitors to the United States.

In response to the ideal of the free-thinking scholar who must have the freedom to pursue her/his work, professional organizations and unions embraced and defended the idea of "academic freedom."  Academic freedom proclaimed that researchers and teachers had the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge in their field unencumbered by political constraints and various efforts to silence them and their work.  To encourage young scholars to embrace occupations in higher education and to encourage diversity of views, most universities in the United States gave lip service to academic freedom and in the main have sought to protect the principle in the face of attacks on the university in general and controversial scholars in particular.

During periods of controversy and conflict in society at large, universities become "contested terrain."  That is, external pressures on universities lead administrators to act in ways to stifle controversy and dissent.  The targets of that dissent and their supporters, and students and colleagues at large, raise their voices to protest efforts to squelch it.  Interestingly enough, the university, which on the one hand serves outside interests, on the other hand, prizes independence from outside interests.

The University in the 21st Century

If the university is conceptualized as the site of “contested terrain,” as a place where ideas are debated and contested, and students and teachers alike connect these ideas to their activity in the world beyond the campus, then conceiving of the impacts only in terms of careers, job satisfaction, and vague references to “well-being” in terms of “purpose, social, physical, financial, and community” dimensions is too limited and simplistic. The university should be a place where traditional and non-traditional students are stimulated to develop a deeper understanding of the world and some sense of how it can be changed for the better.

In addition, the model of the university as “contested terrain” is a communal one, involving teachers and students in the ongoing collective struggle to better understand the world and conceptualize ways to engage in it. 

I am afraid the Gallup-Purdue Index, and other such measures, will not be motivated to or be able to help assess how higher education aided students to understand and change the world. In the end, this new set of metrics likely will be designed to measure the interests of those who control higher education today, not those who see the university as a vital institution that participates in the process of change.

Monday, December 9, 2013

MY NELSON MANDELA




Harry Targ

One of the ironies of 21st century historical discourse is that despite significantly increased access to information, historical narratives are shaped by economic and political interest and ideology more than ever before. Widely distributed accounts about iconic political figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King stun those of us who are knowledgeable about the times in which these figures lived. Real historic figures get lionized, sanitized and most importantly redefined as defenders of the ongoing order rather than activists who committed their lives to revolutionary changes in the economic and political structures that exploit and oppress people. Most of the media reviews of the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela fit this model.

However, most of my remembrances of Nelson Mandela are different.

First, he committed his life to the cause of creating an economic and political system in his homeland that would provide justice for all people.

Second, Nelson Mandela was part of the great wave of revolutionary anti-colonial leaders who participated in the mass movements for change in the Global South in the 20th century. These movements for independence led to the achievement of liberation for two-thirds of the world’s population from harsh, inhumane white minority rule. The campaign against apartheid in South Africa was part of this anti-colonial struggle. Mandela shared the vision of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharial Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Amical Cabral, Franz Fanon, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. These leaders were spokespersons for mass struggles that transformed the world in the 20th century.

Third, Nelson Mandela gave voice and inspiration to young people in the Global North who sought peace and justice in their own societies. Mandela inspired movements that went beyond the struggle against racism and imperialism to address sexism and homophobia as well.

Fourth, Mandela made it clear to many of us (despite sanitized media frames) that he saw himself as part of the movements of people who themselves make history. He worked with all those who shared his vision of a just society: grassroots movements, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African labor movement (COSATU), the Black Consciousness Movement, and progressives from faith communities. To quote from Mandela’s first speech upon release from prison on February 11, 1990:

On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.
I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.

I salute the African National Congress. It has fulfilled our every expectation in its role as leader of the great march to freedom.

I salute our President, Comrade Oliver Tambo, for leading the ANC even under the most difficult circumstances.

I salute the rank and file members of the ANC. You have sacrificed life and limb in the pursuit of the noble cause of our struggle.

I salute combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe….who have paid the ultimate price for the freedom of all South Africans.

I salute the South African Communist Party for its sterling contribution to the struggle for democracy. You have survived 40 years of unrelenting persecution. 

I salute General Secretary Joe Slovo, one of our finest patriots. We are heartened by the fact that the alliance between ourselves and the Party remains as strong as it always was.

I salute the United Democratic Front, the National Education Crisis Committee, the South African Youth Congress, the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses and COSATU and the many other formations of the Mass Democratic Movement.

I also salute the Black Sash and the National Union of South African Students. We note with pride that you have acted as the conscience of white South Africa. Even during the darkest days in the history of our struggle you held the flag of liberty high. The large-scale mass mobilisation of the past few years is one of the key factors which led to the opening of the final chapter of our struggle.

I extend my greetings to the working class of our country. Your organised strength is the pride of our movement. You remain the most dependable force in the struggle to end exploitation and oppression…. 

I pay tribute to the many religious communities who carried the campaign for justice forward when the organisations for our people were silenced….

I pay tribute to the endless heroism of youth, you, the young lions. You, the young lions, have energised our entire struggle.

I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else.

On this occasion, we thank the world community for their great contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. Without your support our struggle would not have reached this advanced stage. The sacrifice of the frontline states will be remembered by South Africans forever.

Finally, Nelson Mandela inspired many of us in our own ways to commit to the historical march of people to make a better world. That commitment is powerfully described by a friend, Willie Williamson, a retired teacher from Chicago:

“As a young man I learned about Nelson Mandela serving time in prison in South Africa. At that time I was politically ignorant about international affairs, but became curious about the Apartheid racial system because it reminded me so much of the small Mississippi town that I grew up in. Already angered, after completing a stint in the Vietnam War, I became outraged and somewhat withdrawn. But it was the fight to free Mandela that brought me around to understanding that I had to become a part of a movement with justice at its core. I have Mandela to thank for my understanding of how to relieve an unjust power of its stranglehold. The fight must always be for justice throughout the world!”





Thursday, December 5, 2013

PEACE MOVEMENT SOMETIMES NEEDS TO SUPPORT THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT

Harry Targ

From the standpoint of peace movements, much of modern history has required mobilizations against United States imperialism. In this century, peace activists have mobilized against major wars, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq; interference in and promotion of civil wars as in Libya and Syria; and U.S. defense of regimes that violate human rights such as Israel and Honduras. Peace activists have demanded that their government support, not oppose, grassroots movements which have sought to overthrow oppressive pro-United States rulers, as in Egypt in 2011. In addition, peace activists continue to mobilize against exorbitant military spending, drone warfare, violations of the privacy of citizens and non-citizens alike, and the training of the officer core in Latin America at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

However, from time to time peace activists need to bring their pressure to bear in support of government policies. Now is such a time as the United States has shifted in the direction of negotiating a de-escalation of tensions with Iran and promoting an end to civil war in Syria.

Last summer, President Obama indicated he was giving serious consideration to selective bombing of military targets in Syria. The proposed scenario sounded a lot like the US/NATO war on Libya in 2011 that facilitated the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and the disintegration of Libyan society into a maze of warring factions.

Anti-war activists around the country hit the streets to protest impending war.  Vocal opposition in Congress to a war on Syria expanded. As a result of this growing resistance to war, the President postponed indefinitely an attack on Syria. Shortly after, Secretary of State Kerry flew to Geneva and began the latest round of discussions with Iranian leaders to eliminate the “threat” of Iran’s nuclear program coupled with the end of the Western economic blockade of that country. 

The result of this flurry of activities is a recently signed six-month agreement between the United States and Iran to give time for further diplomatic negotiations. In addition, the administration announced that negotiations would begin in January to end the civil war in Syria.

New York Times reporter Mark Landler wrote that “…the two nearly simultaneous developments were vivid statements that diplomacy, the venerable but often-unsatisfying art of compromise, has once again become the centerpiece of American foreign policy” (“Obama Signals a Shift From Military Might to Diplomacy,” New York Times, November 25, 2013).

Landler referred to 2008 candidate Obama’s pledge to audiences at home, in Europe, and in the Middle East that his administration would use the traditional tools of diplomacy rather than force to help solve world problems. His 2008 rhetoric stood markedly in contrast to the neo-conservative vision of a foreign policy which would use force as a first resort rather than a last one.  

The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a right wing lobby group, advocated in the 1990s for a foreign policy based on “…the essential elements of the Reagan Administration’s success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposely promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.” 

The neo-conservative approach to foreign policy which dominated the Bush Administration was unilateralist and militarist, rejecting diplomacy, international institutions, and securing support from friendly nations. A centerpiece of the policy was the Doctrine of Pre-emption, attacking a group or nation that the United States feels might be planning to attack the United States.

Obama in 2008 sided with a more pragmatic view—secure support from allies, work within international organizations to achieve goals, develop policies to deter threats  rather than  pre-empting them with offensive military action, and, most of all, use diplomacy to solve conflicts. From the pragmatist viewpoint military force should only be a last resort (see Harry Targ, “Globalists vs. Pragmatists: Two Styles of Imperialism,” Diary of a Heartland Radical, www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com,  May 31, 2010.)

Once elected, Obama embraced the pragmatist approach to foreign policy for much of his first two years in office—meeting with the G20 countries, loosening restrictions on American contacts with Cuba, criticizing Israel’s expanding settlements in the West Bank, and mildly rebuking the Honduran military for carrying out a coup in that country. Importantly, the president withdrew most U.S. troops from Iraq.

However, after 2010, his policies reflected more the policies of his predecessor. The United States expanded U.S. military bases in Colombia, stalled the de-escalation of tensions with Cuba, and ignored the refusal of the Honduran military and civilian elite to reestablish its elected government. Criticism of Israeli policy declined. And, most significantly, Obama sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and supported a NATO-led air war against Libya. Finally, some “boots on the ground” were replaced with an escalated drone anti-terror program against targets in Pakistan and Yemen.

Recent developments in United States policy toward Iran and Syria suggest that the “pragmatist” Obama may be returning. As Phyllis Bennis recently asked: “Could we be seeing the rising role of diplomacy instead of military force as the basis of U.S. foreign policy?”

The neo-conservatives and other legislators, who are guided in their policy perspectives in the Middle East by what the government of Israel supports or opposes, are objecting to the Administration’s pursuit of diplomatic solutions to conflicts with Iran and Syria. Many legislators, both Democratic and Republican, are calling for increased sanctions against Iran which would scuttle the U.S./Iranian agreement.

This time the peace movement should step up to support the foreign policy of the Obama Administration rather than oppose it. If not, the United States will return to the traditional neo-conservative approach to world affairs; send in the military now and think about diplomacy later.

As Phyllis Bennis wrote in reference to peace activists: “As usual, it’s up to us to keep the pressure on. We need to make sure the agreement with Iran holds, and we need to make sure the U.S. doesn’t continue to exclude Iran from participating in Syria peace talks” (“Iran diplomacy Works, Afghan War Winding Down, Palestine Crisis Remains,” New Internationalism, Institute for Policy Studies, 2013, Phyllis@ips-dc.org).