Wednesday, August 12, 2009


In the Beginning

I am a child of the cold war. I was born in 1940, was an adolescent in the 1950s, and devoid of political consciousness when President Eisenhower warned of the "unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex" in 1960. I was modestly inspired by the young President Kennedy's admonition to "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." In fact I have thought a lot about that exhortation recently as I compare the enthusiasm with which young people embraced the Kennedy campaign in 1960 and the way young people today are energized by Barack Obama. While most of us did not realize then that JFK spoke for American empire, he helped mobilize young people who throughout the 1960s fought against it.

I was not just an empty vessel, ready for cooptation, however. I read and heard about the courageous people organizing and participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the freedom rides in the south. And I slowly but significantly drifted into the cognitive orbit of the melodies and messages of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, but the politics of social change only marginally entered course work in high school and college. As a student of foreign policy and diplomacy and international relations I gravitated toward the most "radical' paradigm reflected in curricula at the time, "the realist" perspective. This view suggested that all nations, even our own, were driven by the pursuit of power. Defending freedom, fighting totalitarianism, standing up to communism, the realists said, was the discursive "cover" for the drive to power for which all nations were driven.

I attended a graduate program in political science that was in the forefront of the new "behavioral science" revolution. We were told we were scientists in the academy and citizens when we returned home. As scientists we were engaged in the pursuit of the construction of empirical theory about human behavior. Our task was to better describe, explain, and predict -- not change -- political behavior. The unverifiable "laws" of human nature, embedded in the realist logic, were to be replaced by rigorously acquired data and verifiable knowledge claims.

When I came to Purdue University in 1967, assigned to teach courses on international relations, I was troubled by the fact that neither the realists nor the behaviorists helped 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 do anything about the war, as teacher or citizen, presumably armed with a body of knowledge that might have value to the debate about the war.

I 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 organized courses around anarchist and utopian thought. My exposure to the Marxist tradition came later.

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 (1964), Ivan Illich (1999), Jonathan Kozol (1968), Herbert Kohl (1988), Robert Paul Wolff (1970), and such eclectic writers as Lewis Mumford (1963). And this was before the availability of the works of Paulo Freire in the 1970s, and followers such as Henry Giroux (2007), Peter McLaren (2000), and other radical educational theorists. 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," 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.

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