Thinking Academic Resistance

By Nathaniel Mills

Neoliberalism, Education, and Terrorism: Contemporary Dialogues. Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Henry A. Giroux, Sophia A. McClennen, and Kenneth J. Saltman. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013. 

 When I started graduate school in 2004, the first book I read was Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins. Readings describes a historical shift in the university, from an institution devoted to the dissemination of culture to one devoted to corporate-style functionality and unconcerned with civic responsibility. The end of that shift has been the reality of the university for as long as I and many academics of my generation have known it. The danger for us is that we will accept the corporatization of education as the way it’s long been and always will be. But simply historicizing that shift can encourage nostalgia for a university defined by sociopolitical arrangements that no longer exist and that, furthermore, were often problematic when they did. The contributors to Neoliberalism, Education, and Terrorism call for academics to recognize and resist neoliberal economic policies and the state’s conduct of the war on terror as forces eroding what they call “progressive education” in post–September 11 America. By concretely analyzing how these forces are working to appropriate education at all levels, studies like this not only provide useful sociopolitical insight into the challenges educators face but also remind us of the need to do something about them. 

The volume under review is subtitled Contemporary Dialogues, although the dialogue between individual essays is one of differing emphases rather than productive dissent. The authors refer to the salient concerns of one another’s scholarship and share a set of consistent sociopolitical and educational assumptions outlined in a collaboratively authored introduction and conclusion. While the volume thus lacks political diversity, its presentation of the general interrelation of neoliberalism, education, and terrorism— an interrelation no academic can afford to ignore—is nonetheless multifaceted and nuanced. 

The volume’s central claim is that state militarization in the wake of September 11, including the encroachment of military-funded projects and military-based cultural assumptions and organizational structures into education, has furthered the neoliberal aim of remaking education on a corporate, free-market model. Neoliberalism and militarization share what the authors call a “denial of politics”: the suppression of civic debate and liberal-democratic values in the name of accomplishing the goals of the market and the militarized state. Neoliberal attempts to replace social community with individualized economic agents—to replace citizens with consumers—converge with widespread acceptance of war and violence. When one has no obligations to others apart from those of a producer or exchanger on the free market, one can tolerate imperialism, torture, and the suppression of rights. And when a student learns not about the social responsibilities of democratic citizenship but only about career skills or the “values” that underwrite American imperialism, the democratic purpose of education is lost. 

Henry Giroux’s opening essay links the crisis in education to US mass culture. Accompanying and enabling the militarization of education, he argues, is the widespread prevalence of violence in popular culture, a trend Giroux terms the “depravity of aesthetics.” While he adduces a range of popular media in which violence is offered for pleasurable consumption (film, television, talk radio, advertising), he tends to be cursory in his readings of individual texts. For example, he cites Inglourious Basterds and The Hunger Games as films that participate in the “depravity of aesthetics” without noticing how both films also critique the consumption of violence. As a result, the “depravity of aesthetics” paradigm remains largely suggestive, though it allows Giroux to find political urgency in the teaching of critical thinking and civic responsibility as antidotes to passive cultural consumption. 

Kenneth Saltman analyzes the role of venture philanthropy— which he historicizes as a neoliberal shift from the more socially constructive giving of figures like Andrew Carnegie—in the privatization and corporatization of public education. Saltman examines how corporate charitable organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and philanthropies that fund charter school initiatives, such as the Charter School Growth Fund, further the neoliberal goal of educating students as consumers rather than citizens. 

Sophia McClennen theorizes the complicity of neoliberalism and militarization in a global context, connecting free-market absolutism to the US state’s suppression of individual and national rights in the war on terror. Higher education in America, she argues, is threatened by the same forces that underpin American global hegemony, and she attributes the inability, so far, of progressive academics fully to analyze that connection to factors like the silencing of political dissent on college campuses after September 11 and measures that saddle faculty with increased service and teaching duties. 

Finally, Jeffrey Di Leo argues that the neoliberal reorganization of higher education creates terror among faculty, who live in fear of losing tenure and academic freedom. Di Leo here adds an important consideration to academic labor studies by examining the psychological condition of the professoriate. In attributing what he calls “academic terrorism” to neoliberalism, however, Di Leo overlooks the ways in which the traditional experiences of faculty—the publish-or-perish culture of academia, the competitiveness and infighting within departments, the rites of peer review (whether in publication or retention decisions)—generate plenty of terror on their own. 

Despite the leftist and activist commitments of their authors, these essays provide few specific strategies for resisting free-market and military incursion into higher education. The lack of strategies might be symptomatic of the difficulty of thinking resistance from a commitment to “progressive education,” which the authors define as “educat[ing] students to be productive participants in democratic culture and to engage actively in critical citizenship.” The authors cite this familiar Enlightenment ideal of education without submitting it to the same radical critique they apply to capitalism and the state. On their own, terms like “critical citizenship” or “participating citizens” and “humanistic, egalitarian, and democratic ideals” don’t carry specific political content. The student who puts her college training toward a career with the state or the military can also claim “critical citizenship” as the mission of her education, just as proponents of the charter school movement can claim to be “participating citizens” enacting democratic responsibility. Conservative and neoliberal students and professors might point out that the Enlightenment narrative of education is not necessarily aligned with resistance to free-market capitalism or the military. Nor does Enlightenment rhetoric necessarily position engaged pedagogy or sociopolitical critique against the corporation or the state. After all, Immanuel Kant in “What Is Enlightenment?” held that critical thought should occur outside one’s professional and institutional obligations. “Democratic ideals” and “critical citizenship” don’t fully encompass and explicate the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist priorities expressed throughout the volume. 

Defending the public school system, the university, or the humanities against capitalist and military influences can be a paradoxical undertaking, since it tends to pair radical political sensibilities with conventional, liberal-democratic framings of education. An anticapitalist and anti-imperialist defense of education needs an alternative discourse, one that would provide a usable account of the necessity and progressive nature of traditional models of education. Crafting that discourse is no easy task. Yet, by offering a clear diagnosis of education’s troubling entanglements with the market and the state, this volume offers invaluable resources for that project. 

Nathaniel Mills is assistant professor of English at California State University, Northridge. He works on US and African American literary and political radicalism. His e-mail address is [email protected].