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Commodification of Education Corrodes Democracy

October 20, 2017

Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, posted an essay in Truthdig  earlier this week that makes the case that the commodification of education is corroding democracy. Titled “Rethinking Higher Education in a Time of Tyranny“, Mr. Giroux offers six action steps higher education should take to offset this disturbing trend.

After opening his essay with a description of how activists like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi viewed education, Mr. Giroux suggests that the plutocrats running our country have willfully undercut the mission of higher education by converting it into a commodity, and in so doing have undercut the democracy that requires a well-informed electorate. This lengthy excerpt offers a concise and compelling description of what has transpired over the past five decades:

Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Over the last 50 years, critical public institutions from public radio to public schools have been defunded, commercialized and privatized transforming them from spheres of critical analysis to dumbed-down workstations for a deregulated and commodified culture.

Lacking public funds, many institutions of higher education have been left to mimic the private sector, transforming knowledge into a commodity, eliminating those courses and departments that do not align themselves with a robust bottom line. In addition, faculty are increasingly treated like Walmart workers with labor relations increasingly designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Under this market-driven governance, students are often relegated to the status of customers, saddled with high tuition rates and a future predicated on ongoing political uncertainty, economic instability and ecological peril.

This dystopian view feeds an obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality. This bespeaks to the rise of what theorists such as the late Stuart Hall called an audit or corporate culture, which serves to demoralize and depoliticize both faculty and students, often relieving them of any larger values other than those that reinforce their own self-interest and retreat from any sense of moral and social responsibility.

As higher education increasingly subordinates itself to market-driven values, there is a greater emphasis on research that benefits the corporate world, the military and rich conservative ideologues such as the Koch brothers, who have pumped over $200 million into higher education activities since the 1980s to shape faculty hires, promote academic research centers, and shape courses that reinforce a conservative market-driven ideological and value system…

Under such circumstances, commercial values replace public values, unbridled self-interest becomes more important than the common good and sensation seeking and a culture of immediacy becomes more important than compassion and long term investments in others, especially youth…

As Mr. Giroux notes at the beginning of this analysis: Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, the Obama administration advocated a system of “grading” post secondary institutions on the earnings of its graduates, effectively reinforcing the obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality the Mr. Giroux rightfully decries. In response to this trend of commodification, Mr. Giroux offers six recommendations.

First he recommends that higher education “reassert its mission as a public good”. At every turn, those involved in any capacity in higher education need to make it clear that the politician’s and business community’s “obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality” is wrongheaded and counter-productive. 

Second, “…educators need to place ethics, civic literacy, social responsibility and compassion at the forefront of learning.” Post-secondary education needs to be about more than getting a good job or earning more and moe money. It needs to focus on creating “…critically engaged and informed citizens contributing not simply to their own self-interest but to the well-being of society as a whole.

Third, our nation needs to view higher education as a right… not something for “the elite” and not a commodity that requires students to go into debt. Moreover, higher education should value and emphasize what Mr Giroux calls a “culture of questioning“.

Fourth, students need to learn how to express themselves and not regurgitate data and master algorithms.

Fifth, higher education needs to restore the status of teaching as a profession and not as a contracted service. Mr. Giroux notes that in America, the corporatization and commodification of higher education has resulted in a situation where “…Seventy percent of all part- and full-time instructional positions are filled with contingent or nontenured-track faculty“. This is efficient from a business-office perspective, but results in a de-professionalization of higher education.

Finally, Mr. Giroux recommends that students be encouraged to develop and use their imaginations: to envision a future that is “…more than a mirror image of the present.

Mr. Giroux concludes his essay with this quote from James Baldwin:

In The Fire Next Time, he writes: “The impossible is the least that one can demand. …Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them…. the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is one of tasks of educators and higher education to keep the lights burning with a feverish intensity.

When post-secondary education is about earnings, it does not encourage us to keep faith with one another. It, instead, encourages us to blindly compete with one another and, in so doing, turns out the light of compassion that will join us together.

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