Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Occupy faculty: militarism, debt-slavery and 'value-neutrality'

“But in all history there is no war which has not been hatched by the governments, by the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.”- Leo Tolstoy (h/t Peter Gibbins)

I teach part-time at Metropolitan State College in Denver. It has the aspiration of providing democratic education and draws diverse and lively students. Unlike private colleges, the Auraria campus (the Community College of Denver, the University of Colorado at Denver, and Metro) illustrates both the potential and real democracy we live in of which the political class in Washington, mostly lawyers and millionaires, is not representative. The students at public colleges and universities are a core of the future democracy, their voices part of the 99%.

As a teacher, I seek to engage students in discussion, especially in courses which deal with Plato, civil disobedience and the civil rights movement, to find topics they can connect with, to learn in the light of and speak from their own experience. I occasionally ask them in papers on Americans wars or civil disobedience, to talk about their own lives if they want to. This winter, I have gotten several memorable responses.

One is from Armando Genayro, an eloquent soldier and artist who is now active in the Occupy movement. A striking aspect of American privatized, life-on-the-cheap-for-soldiers militarism is that one can join to get help with education, do the time, and no longer get adequate money for college:

“The idea of attaining a higher education became even more unimaginable after the death of my father in the weeks after my eighteenth birthday. My father was the sole provider in our home, and although I was working at the time, a part-time pizza delivery driver could only afford so much and college tuition was simply not in the budget. I weighed my options and decided to visit the local Air Force recruiting officers after a recent boot camp graduate had dropped off some recruiting fliers. I was instantly lured in with the promise of financial security, money for schooling, and extra bonuses along with the ‘prestige and honor’ that came with being a soldier in the most elite fighting force in the world; the money for schooling ultimately being the deciding factor in enlisting.”

“The assurances flew fast, and I was signing my name on contracts faster than I could read them. The country was at war with a new threat, and patriotism was at an all-time high after the events of September 11. These military recruiters are highly trained in the art of sale, and know exactly how to prey on the tendencies of impressionable young people, especially those of young men who are financially unstable, even more, during times of war. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “….And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as the enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” (“A Time to Break Silence,” April 4, 1967) Not only can his words be applied to the poor class of today’s war-weary generation, but the same can be said about today’s middle class as well.”

Coming to be against war and speak out, “there were instance where I was called a ‘terrorist sympathizer’ and a ‘communist’ by people who obviously had no idea what these terms actually mean…Although I labeled myself as a conscientious objector, I served faithfully and was released from duty with an honorable discharge. However, my service was not reciprocated with the same type of loyalty. Changes in the GI Bill now limit the amount of financial compensation I can receive for my schooling….”

Another student, who comes from a family of migrant workers, liked the course and thinks differently about American foreign policy in the light of it. She describes her brother who also joined the marines to get money for education, and has become, in virtue of what America does abroad (how little one can take it in and remain, for the time-being, fully herself), gung-ho. He now willingly does harm to others, and places himself in harm's way. And fear for him envelops the family (and even from afar, me, who just read the story...). There is something tragic in this, for him and the family (for him and thousands of others, other families):

“You asked if ordinary Americans including ourselves have been helped or hurt by American militarism. If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have said it was a great thing. I would then have proceeded to tell you how proud I was of my younger brother who is a Marine. I never knew how much one semester of political science could make a certain individual think so deep about our current government. Just last year I knew nothing about the effect the war has on Americans. I thought young men and women would join the military to protect their country from terrorists. I guess that that’s the mentality they go in with and after that whole training process they somehow end up brain washed. My brother joined the Marines two and a half years ago. He’s a smart kid. I practically raised him and my younger sister. When my brother joined the marines I was really proud and happy, just like my mother. My brother went in with this attitude of doing his four years and getting out and using his GI bill to get a higher education. Now his whole life revolves around being a marine. He has this really tough attitude about everything and is very aggressive. Right now my brother is in his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. When I asked him if he despised getting sent over there again for the second time, he said no that he actually liked it. When he left the first time I would tell everybody I met that my younger brother was in Afghanistan. My mother’s stress levels are really high most of the time. My son is always sad and worried about his uncle who he sees as a father figure. Pretty much everybody in my family is always asking if my brother is okay every time they hear something about a bombing in Afghanistan on the news. It puts my mom and our extended family on the edge every time because we do not know what is happening with my brother unless he calls us and tells us he is doing fine.”

A third student, now a union organizer, wrote a paper about his father’s response to war, connecting it with Tolstoy on nonviolence. His father told him early to understand that war – and especially imperial wars – are no good, as he had learned, in turn, from his father. He began his paper:

“When my father was but a boy and enamored with the glories of war as boys are apt to do, my grandfather walked him out to the street in front of their house to point out the many gifts war had bestowed on their working class neighborhood. All the houses routinely distinguished by the patriotic red, white and blue were the homes of veterans, many decorated from World War II. Never able to escape their ‘glorious’ past as soldiers and sailors, they drank themselves into oblivion, beating their wives and children and passing out on the front lawn, only to awaken to the loving arms of men in blue lifting them out of a puddle of filth and despair. And these were the victors.”

“A veteran of Midway, Coral Sea, Leyte Gulf and other Pacific naval battles, my grandfather knew the face of war and the price one paid for meeting its glance. Though we think of the fifties as a golden era, the beginnings of an economic boom, the heroes from World War II still suffered the inevitable costs that come from committing and being victim to unspeakable acts of violence. Tract housing and the GI Bill eased material concerns for the average veteran, but ultimately, nothing will make war pleasant or profitable for the common man on the battle field.”

He concluded:

”When we wave our flags and salute the mighty beast of war that we helped build [through a patriotism manipulated by the elite], we fail to notice that it feeds on the peaceful dreams of most Americans. When I finish my studies and begin to cope with the debt slavery that is a by-product of our endless offerings to the gods of war, I’ll save those student loan statements. My kids will not only see suffering veterans when I show them the evils of war, they’ll see those mundane statements as well.”

Exploring the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s Republic, a fourth wrote of growing up surrounded by the Air Force Academy and military bases (mountains carved out to house NORAD – the North American military command - and missiles) of Colorado Springs. She was a good student, but this public school only encouraged people who wanted to go into the military or who were good in math. The high school had deteriorated. Here is her description of an especially bad class – the students rightly protested, the administration, with true military zeal a la MASH, stonewalled, and her counselor belittled her.

“I have seen how the story of the cave and the light is still very relevant today in education and life. That is why I chose this story because the topic of education is very important to me. I grew up in Colorado Springs and went to Air Academy High School. The school was on the Air Force base, which was odd because less than 10% of the school’s population had military parents, which was what the school was originally meant to cater to. Because of this at least in my personal opinion, the school was basically a recruiting ground for the military. The ROTC kids were treated very differently from the rest. It goes the same for the math-inclined. The school used to be one of the best in the city, but had been going downhill a lot by the time I got there. My siblings had attended some years before me and told me students were treated much different than when I was there. Because of this, the high school had adopted a viewpoint that having high math test scores should be the most important thing.”

“I, myself, being more creatively inclined and having struggled with math my whole life, had trouble meeting this goal. Because I was mad at math, I was immediately type cast into being ‘stupid” and below average, even though I was above average in almost all other areas and in advanced placement classes. I wasn’t even that bad at math, but just needed teachers to take a little more time and make a better effort in explaining things which many did not want to do. I had one teacher in particular that would come to class, write the homework on the board and then proceed to play video games on the school’s equipment, not even talking to the class, even though it was a higher level class. After a while, when the majority of the class was failing, we complained in large numbers to the administration, but were met with the excuse that we were not trying hard. For me, this was a very emotionally difficult experience, since I talked on a regular basis with my counselor trying to figure out how to help me, and basically made it out that I had no choice, and that if I didn’t do better, I would not get into college, and even made me convince myself that I would just become useless and have a pathetic life.”

“As soon as I started college, I saw firsthand how wrong the school had been; that I was able to succeed despite not being good at math. It was like I was the prisoner coming out of the cave and seeing the world for what it truly was, not what I had been forced to believe for so long.”

Perhaps others have heard a more powerful or relevant rendition of the cave and the light, but not I…

As Rich Rockwell, my graduate student and friend, discovered a few years ago, the cave in Plato is also the quarries of Syracuse in Thucydides in which the Athenian soldiers are slaughtered by Hermocrates and his troops. War is the cave, ascending to the light recovery of oneself...

I was speaking with my friend Robert Hazan about the depression and tuition rises which affect Metro (I had no black students in one class for the first time at Metro). He told me that the political science department collects food and clothing for students in need. Some students sleep in cars…

Teachers here often are very determined and creative, and work hard with students (I met many colleagues at the Occupy marches this fall). There is a story told in academia that to seek the truth, one must be “value-free.” What this means, as I emphasize in Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990) and here, is that one should challenge one’s own preferences or the “biases” with which one has grown up. One should ask, as Andrew Bacevich, a military officer in a family of officers did, walking around in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall and seeing that the depiction of the fearsome enemy had no basis, whether American foreign policy is right (see the introduction to Washington Rules).

My father worked for the US government as a Keynsian economist during World War II. He always referred to the government as “we. “ It was a considerable mental and emotional struggle for me to sign a “We Won’t Go” petition about Vietnam. Often, we come to change our minds, given evidence and argument, about deep things (the Occupy movement is an example, for many). To be a scholar (or a philosopher) is to do this in a more sustained way, to seek the truth and disregard fear or favor.

But to challenge one’s prejudices is not “value-free.” It upholds human decency and defends the truth against a so-called neutrality sustained by big money and fear to draw disapproval from Trustees and administrators (Pentagon contracts, for example, funded much of post-World War II political “science” - see here). To challenge prevailing prejudices, to ask questions where others assume answers, is a sign of intellectual life.

The truth about Iraq, that the United States government has waged a war of aggression and killed and driven out hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who did the US no harm, is not neutral. And saying it is six of one and half a dozen of the other whether the Bush administration did the right thing in Iraq is a lie. It is not close.

In fact, the desire to be “value free” is derivative from the goal of seeking the truth. The latter, most especially about the basic rights and needs of human beings about which historical and social science investigation can cast a light, is the aim, not the former. When justified, the former is a way to the latter.

The simplest way to see the error in the formulation that academic life at all costs must be “value-free” is to consider the following question: should one be neutral between truth and error, truth and lies, truth and ideology, truth and plagiarism?

If so, there is no interest in the views espoused in academia, and no one should pay money to engage with them…

But of course, this ideology is false, self-refuting (if no view is true, what about the view that “no view is true”?) and, put in the above way, a betrayal of everything that is good in the life of scholarship.

Universities are becoming increasingly privatized. There is an aim, on the part of the Koch brothers and other quasi-fascists (in this respect, even Ron Paul*), to destroy public colleges and education and privatize everything. Glenn Morris, a leader of the protest at the Auraria campus against the Keystone XL pipeline during Obama’s visit - see here and here - sent me an article by Henry Giroux from Truthout below which raises the question of whether the University is some kind of mall or "ecological dead zone" with no concern for a public good, most teachers adjuncts to be thrown away, most students consumers with no interest in seeking the truth, in being challenged, in following her or his own course in figuring things out, in living her own life.

But there are reasons, as the stories of the students invoked above indicate, to do the opposite, to fight for education versus the mall of debt-slavery, to join the Occupy movement. At Harvard, at Auraria, at Davis, at the University of Denver and across the country, the Occupy movement is growing. See here, here, here, here and here. Everyone on campus, staff, students, faculty, and even administrators (those who are interested in working in universities as opposed to privatized malls), has an interest – one might speak of it more deeply as a concern, given who each of us is and might become - in joining the 99%.

Why Faculty Should Join Occupy Movement Protesters on College Campuses

by: Henry A. Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed

Protesters react during a rally at the University of California, Davis campus, November 21, 2011. (Photo: Annie Tritt / The New York Times)

In both the United States and many other countries, students are protesting against rising tuition fees, the increasing financial burdens they are forced to assume, and the primacy of market models in shaping higher education while emphasizing private benefits to individuals and the economy. Many students view these policies and for-profit industries as part of an assault on not just the public character of the university but also as an attack on civic society and their future.

For many young people in the Occupy movement, higher education has defaulted on its promise to provide them with both a quality education and the prospects of a dignified future. They resent the growing instrumentalization and accompanying hostility to critical and oppositional ideas within the university. They have watched over the years as the university is losing ground as a place to think, dissent, and develop a culture of questioning, dialogue, and civic enlightenment. They are rethinking what should be the role of the university in a world caught in a nightmarish blend of war, massive economic inequities and ecological destruction.

What role should the university play at a time when politics is being emptied out of any connection to a civic literacy, informed judgment, and critical dialogue, further deepening a culture of illiteracy, cruelty, hypermasculinity and disposability? Young people are not only engaging in a great refusal; they are also arguing for the social benefits and public value of higher education while deeply resenting the fact that, as conservative politicians defund higher education and cut public spending, they do so in order to be able to support tax breaks for corporations and the rich and to ensure ample funds for sustaining and expanding the warfare state.

The Occupy protesters view the assault on the programs that emerged out of the New Deal and the Great Society as being undermined as society increasingly returns to a Second Gilded Age, in which youth have to bear the burden of an attack on the welfare state, social provisions, and a huge wealth and income inequality gap. Young people recognize that they have become disposable, and that higher education, which always embodied the ideal, though in damaging terms, of a better life, has now become annexed to the military-academic-industrial complex.

What is important about the Occupy protesters' criticism of being saddled with onerous debt, viewed as a suspect generation, subjected to the demands of an audit culture that confuses training with critical education and their growing exclusion from higher education is that such concerns situate the attack on higher education as part of a broader criticism against the withering away of the public realm, public values and any viable notion of the public good. To paraphrase William Greider, they have come to recognize in collective fashion that higher education has increasingly come to resemble "an ecological dead zone" where social relevance and engaged scholarship perishes in a polluted, commercial, market-driven environment. The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of identities in which the only obligation of citizenship is to be a consumer.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters reject the propaganda they have been relentlessly fed by a market-driven culture: the notion that markets should take priority over governments, that market values are the best means for ordering society and satisfying human needs, that material interests are more important than social needs, and that self-interest is the driving force of freedom and the organizing principle of society. The Occupy Wall Street protests refuse a notion of society that embraces a definition of agency in which people are viewed only as commodities, bound together in a Darwinian nightmare that celebrates the logic of greed, unchecked individualism and a disdain for democratic values. The old idea of democracy in which the few govern the many through the power of capital and ritualized elections is being replaced with a new understanding of democracy and politics, in which power and resources are shared and economic justice and democratic values work in the interest of social responsibility and the common good. This radical notion of democracy is in the making, unfinished, and open to connecting people, power, resources and knowledge. And this turn toward a radical understanding of connecting the particular to the general is particularly true of their view of higher education. What the Occupy protesters recognize, as the British educator Simon Dawes points out, is that, "'the public university' can be read as shorthand for 'not-neoliberal university,' where neoliberal means more than private funding; it means 'not good for democracy.'"

All over the country, Occupy movement protesters are setting up camps on college campuses. Not only are they protesting the ways in which universities now resemble corporations treating faculty as a subaltern class of casualized labor and defining students largely as customers and clients; they have also recognized that banks and loan corporations, with their army of lobbyists, have declared war on students, killing any legislation that would reduce the cost of schooling, stifling any legislation that would make it affordable for all working- and middle-class students.

They are also raising serious questions about academics. Where are they when it comes to protesting the corporatization and militarization of higher education? Why are so many of them complicit with the ideologies and money now used by corporations and the national security state to promote the interest of finance capital and agencies such as the CIA, Defense Department, Pentagon and other apparatuses of the national security state intent on recruiting students to produce militarized knowledge and create new and ever more sophisticated surveillance systems and weapons of mass destruction? Why do so many academics cling to a notion of disinterested and objective scholarship and publish and make a claim to pedagogy that allegedly decries any relationship to politics, power or interest in larger social issues? What Occupy movement protesters have recognized is that for all intents and purposes, too many academics who make a claim to objectivity, and, in some cases, reject the presence of the military-industrial-academic complex on campus, have become irrelevant to offering any viable defense of the university as a democratic public sphere, or, for that matter, even defending to a broader public the very conditions that make their work possible.

One important question that arises from the Occupy movement's migration to college campuses is, what can academics learn from these young people? One of the things they might learn is that critical and important forms of education and dialogue are taking place outside of the university, in which issues are being talked about that are often ignored within the halls, disciplines and classrooms in many universities. Many universities have lost touch with bridging the production of knowledge, research and teaching with the myriad urgent social issues now facing the larger society, including crushing poverty, environmental degradation, racism, the suspension of civil liberties, the colonization of the media by corporations, the rise of the punishing state, religious fanaticism, the corruption of politics by big money and other concerns.

Since the 1980s, higher education has been increasingly corporatized and militarized and subject to market-driven values and managerial relations that treat faculty and students as entrepreneurs and clients, while reducing knowledge to the dictates of an audit culture, and pedagogy to a destructive and reductive instrumental rationality. It is hoped that academics might both learn about and be inspired by the current attempt on the part of students to change the conversation about the meaning and purpose of higher education. Hopefully, they might be moved and educated by the attempt on the part of many young people today to reclaim higher education as a democratic public sphere, one that not only provides work skills, but also offers a formative culture that prepares students to be critical and active agents in shaping the myriad of economic, social and political forces that govern their lives.

Students are rejecting a model of education based on narrow forms of measurable utility, capital accumulation, and cost-efficient asset and power-stripping measures; they are rejecting a market-driven model of education that reduces 70 percent of faculty to a subaltern class of part time workers and treats students as customers and commodities, offering them overcrowded classrooms, skyrocketing tuition rates and modes of learning that have little to do with enabling them to translate personal troubles into social problems. Universities increasingly have come to resemble malls. Rather than offer students an education in which they can become critical individual and social agents who believe that they have the power to change things, they are largely reduced to passive consumers entertained by the spectacles of big sports, celebrity culture and the lure of utterly privatized desires.

In many ways, students are offering faculty the possibility of becoming part of a larger conversation, if not a social movement, one that addresses what the role of the university might be in relation to public life in the 21st century. Central to such an inquiry is examining how higher education has been caught in the grip of larger economic and political forces that undermine the social state, social provisions and democracy itself. The Occupy protesters are arguing that while they might support a limited notion of a market economy, they do not want to live in a market society, a society in which market values become a template for organizing all aspects of social life. They have learned the hard way that beneath this market fundamentalism resides a mode of education and a set of values that contain a secret order of politics that is destructive of democratic social relations, democratic modes of equality and civic education itself.

Young people can make clear to faculty that, over the last 30 years, they have been written out of the social contract and are no longer viewed as a symbol of hope, just as they have been written out of the power relations that govern the university. No longer regarded as an important social investment or as a marker for the state of democracy and the moral life of the nation, young people have become the objects of a more direct and damaging assault waged on them on a number of political economic and cultural fronts. They have been deprived of decent scholarships, disrespected in their attempts to gain a quality education, foiled in their attempts to secure a decent job, and denied a voice in the shaping of the institutions that bear down heavily on their daily lives.

Big banks and large financial institutions view them as a drain on the nation's financial coffers and as a liability in making quick financial profits through short-term investments. Young people are now challenging this toxic form of casino capitalism and, in doing so, are changing the national conversation that has focused on deficit reduction and taxing the poor. They are shifting this conversation to important issues, which range from poverty and joblessness to corporate corruption. Put differently, the Occupy protesters are asking big questions, and they are not simply being moralistic. They are also demanding an alternative vision and set of policies to drive American society.

Faculty need to listen to young people in order to try to understand the problems they face and how, as academics, they might be unknowingly complicit in reproducing such problems. They also need to begin a conversation with young people and among other faculty about how they can become a force for democratic change.

Young people need a space on campuses to talk back, talk to one another, engage in respectful dialogue with faculty and learn how to engage in coalition building. Faculty and administrators can begin to open up the possibility for such spaces by offering the Occupy protesters an opportunity to speak to their classes, create autonomous spaces within the university where they might meet and engage in dialogue with others. They can go even further by joining them in fighting those economic and political forces that are destroying higher education as a social good and as a citadel of rigorous intellectual engagement and civic debate.

Young people no longer recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market, and they no longer believe in an education that ignores critical thinking, dialogue, and those values that engage matters of social responsibility and civic engagement. But students have more to offer than a serious critique of the university and its complicity with a number of antidemocratic forces now shaping the larger society. They are also modeling for faculty new modes of participatory democracy, and exhibiting forms of pedagogy and education that connect learning with social change and knowledge with more democratic modes of self-development and social empowerment. Clearly, academics have a lot to learn from both the ways in which students are changing the conversation about education, important social issues, and democracy, and from what it might mean to imagine a new understanding of politics and a different future.

All of these issues are especially true for those faculty members that believe that scholarship should be disinterested and removed from addressing important social issues. The questions students are raising are important for faculty to rethink those modes of professionalism, specialism and social relations which have cut them off from addressing important social issues and the larger society. Professionalism does not have to translate into a flight from moral and intellectual responsibility.

Faculty can also put pressure on their unions to support the Occupy movement, provide them with financial and media resources, and join with them in pushing for educational and political reforms. The Occupy protesters are surely right in arguing that higher education is a vital public sphere that should be at the forefront in addressing important political, economic and social issues. Faculty should combine their scholarly rigor and knowledge to bridge the gap between the university and everyday life - not to benefit corporate interests or the warfare state, but to benefit existing and future generations of young people who hold the key to whether democracy will survive the current moment in American history.

Too many academics for too long have turned their backs on addressing important social issues, on joining with young people to fight with them for a better future and using their knowledge and skills to convince a wider public that higher education is crucial for not only students, but for the common good and the entire society. Joining with students in the Occupy movement is not merely a career choice; it is a choice about what kind of society we all want to live in, and how the urgency of that question at the current historical moment demands that academics take that question seriously and act as quickly as possible, with passion and conviction.

*Paul opposes American militarism and the war on drugs (and hence the prison/probation complex to a greater extent than others). But he is also a stone racist and his policies would put the US and the world in an even longer depression, and with regard to ordinary people, are uncompassionate and, if put into practice, monstrous.

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