Thursday, June 4, 2015


Harry Targ

What radical scholars must therefore rediscover is not merely that intellectuals play a significant role in the reproduction of capitalism and the capitalist state, but that education has been and remains every bit as much a contested terrain as the shop floor, the party caucus, and the halls of legislative assemblies. Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 9.  

But many professors and other observers said the roller coaster hit a new low Friday afternoon when the (Wisconsin) State Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee approved, by a vote of 12-4, the elimination of tenure from state statute. The committee also approved adding new limits to the faculty role in shared governance and procedures for eliminating faculty members in good standing outside of financial exigency. (Colleen Flaherty, “Trying to Kill Tenure,” Inside Higher Education, June 1, 2015).

One of the most thorough, analytical, and historical analyses of the relationship between the capitalist economy, the state, and higher education was provided by political scientist, Clyde W. Barrow (Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education 1894-1928, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Although his focus was on the rise of the modern university in the “age of reform” (from the 1890s until the 1920s), many of his insights are relevant today, another era of educational “reform.”

According to Barrow, the modern university had its roots in the period of rising capitalism after the Great Depression of the 1870s to the 1890s when mergers created an economic system in which a few hundred corporations and banks came to dominate the entire U.S. economy. Interlocking directorates of corporations and banks created a system of financial speculation, concentrated wealth, and a capitalist state. The capitalist state through pro-corporate and banking regulations, the allocation of tax and other benefits for the wealthy and powerful, and military mobilizations, such as President Cleveland’s use of the United States army to crush workers during the Pullman strike of 1894, helped create twentieth century monopoly capitalism. 

Higher education, once dominated by theological pursuits, was refashioned to serve the needs of modern capitalist society. The need for scientific and technical skills coupled with a trained work force stimulated the establishment of educational institutions that could produce credentialed graduates who would serve the capitalist system. Also theoretical work and classroom education was required to educate the young to celebrate the blessings of the economic system and the conduct of the government. Young people learned about the desirability of market economies, the country’s long tradition of democratic institutions, and the manifest destiny of the United States as it conquered the North American continent and established a global empire from the Philippine Islands, to Cuba, to Central and South America.

Barrow provides data to show that members of university Boards of Trustees, the key decision makers in these institutions, came largely from big corporations, huge banks, and law firms which served big business. Some universities from the Midwest and South were led by trustees who represented regional manufacturing and finance capital, but their outlook and interests paralleled those from the major universities of the Northeast and the major state universities. There were never representatives of broader citizens groups such as labor unions on these boards.

During the early twentieth century, Trustees worked to establish an administrative class that could carry out the day-to-day operations of the university and manage the faculty who were the producers of the mental products the university was assigned to produce. Managerial procedures were adopted to control mental labor in the classroom and the laboratory. Metrics were institutionalized to evaluate the rates of productivity of the faculty; from measuring enrollments, publications, and the rankings of the university.

Federal and state governments and foundations funded the construction of a national university system that would serve the interests of twentieth century capitalism. Major foundations generated studies, did surveys, and made recommendations that found their way into institutions and policies of both public and private universities. During periods when domestic crises, such as depressions, and international ones, such as World War I, stimulated critical analyses from universities, faculty were disciplined or fired for challenging the economic system or state policy. The educational mission was to serve the interests of the capitalist elites and the state, not to provide a venue for critical thinking and debate about issues important to society.

Barrow summarized his findings about higher education:

Individual institutions were developing into centralized corporate bureaucracies administered according to nationally standardized measurements of productivity and rates of return on investment. The entire educational enterprise was being restructured within these standards as a production process that was increasingly integrated into local or regional markets for labor, information, research and professional expertise. The process was more and more a planned undertaking directed by the federal government. The construction of a national ideological state apparatus oriented toward solving the problems of capitalist infrastructure, capital accumulation, and political leadership within a capitalist democracy was well under way. (123)

This description of the emergence of the modern university system about one hundred years ago bears resemblance to the wrenching changes that are occurring in higher education in the twenty-first century. First, the further consolidation of capitalist class power in higher education in the current century comes in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in 2008. United States capitalism continued its transformation from manufacturing to finance as rates of profit from the latter declined. Financial speculation led to banking failures and the collapse of the housing market. Consumer demand shrunk due to rising structural unemployment and falling real wages. And the cost of state support for the provision of education and various social safety nets programs rose. Economic crisis was used to justify austerity policies that included significant reductions in support for higher education. As Naomi Klein suggested, economic shocks facilitated changes in public policy, in this case the adoption of “educational reforms.”

Second, the economic shocks were used by Boards of Trustees, and their advisers in think tanks and political organizations, to demand increasing efficiencies in the production and teaching of knowledge. Programs that could not be justified as good “investments” became vulnerable. The humanities disciplines had to be justified by their use value to the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.

Third, metrics have become omnipresent. Colleges and universities are using quantitative instruments to measure “creativity,” “critical thinking,” “personal satisfaction,” “teacher effectiveness,” and faculty “productivity.” University administrators strongly imply that if the activities at their institutions are not measurable in the narrow numerical sense, they should not be supported.

Fourth, academic fields are shaped by paradigms, or theories that justify the existing economic and political order. The university is not usually a haven for discussions about the fundamental structures of inequality, racism, patriarchy, the devastation of the environment, or war. In the end, Boards of Trustees, think tanks, university administrators, and federal programs, are committed to a university system that supports the capitalist state. Only limited and circumscribed debate about issues fundamental to economic vitality and political democracy are allowed.  In sum, the university was not created for nor does it prioritize today discussions of fundamental truths.

Finally, as the experience of academic critics one hundred years ago of child labor, anti-union policies, World War I, and financial speculation suggests, the nature of debate in the university is circumscribed. University policies, in response to organizations of professors and students, have expanded rights to “academic freedom” and have provided some job security through tenure. But, as the recent decision made by the Wisconsin state legislature suggests, attacks on tenure (which is a right to job security that all workers should enjoy if they perform their duties) may spread as the twenty-first century “reconstruction of American higher education” proceeds. 

To forestall these trends, faculty and students, as Barrows suggests, need to understand that “education has been and remains a contested terrain.”  Most educators believe that the primary purpose of the university is or should be to stimulate a “marketplace of ideas.” However, the history of higher education, he says, is really about how the university can serve the preservation and enhancement of the capitalist state.