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Against the Militarized Academy

While there is an ongoing discussion about what shape the military-industrial complex will take under an Obama presidency, what is often left out of this analysis is the intrusion of the military into higher education.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates participates in a promotion ceremony during a visit with the Marine Corps' 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment March 9, 2010, at a forward operating base in Afghanistan.

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While there is an ongoing discussion about what shape the military-industrial complex will take under an Obama presidency, what is often left out of this analysis is the intrusion of the military into higher education. One example of the increasingly intensified and expansive symbiosis between the military-industrial complex and academia was on full display when Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, announced the creation of what he calls a new “Minerva Consortium,” ironically named after the goddess of wisdom, whose purpose is to fund various universities to “carry out social-sciences research relevant to national security.”(1) Gates’s desire to turn universities into militarized knowledge factories producing knowledge, research and personnel in the interest of the Homeland (In)Security State should be of special concern for intellectuals, artists, academics and others who believe that the university should oppose such interests and alignments. At the very least, the emergence of the Minerva Consortium raises a larger set of concerns about the ongoing militarization of higher education in the United States.

In a post-9/11 world, with its all-embracing war on terror and a culture of fear, the increasing spread of the discourse and values of militarization throughout the social order is intensifying the shift from the promise of a liberal democracy to the reality of a militarized society. Militarization suggests more than simply a militaristic ideal – with its celebration of war as the truest measure of the health of the nation and the soldier-warrior as the most noble expression of the merging of masculinity and unquestioning patriotism – but an intensification and expansion of the underlying values, practices, ideologies, social relations and cultural representations associated with military culture. What appears new about the amplified militarization of the post-9/11 world is that it has become normalized, serving as a powerful educational force that shapes our lives, memories and daily experiences. As an educational force, military power produces identities, goods, institutions, knowledge, modes of communication and affective investments – in short, it now bears down on all aspects of social life and the social order. As Michael Geyer points out, what is distinctive about the militarization of the social order is that civil society not only “organizes itself for the production of violence,”(2) but increasingly spurs a gradual erosion of civil liberties. Military power and policies are expanded to address not only matters of defense and security, but also problems associated with the entire health and social life of the nation, which are now measured by military spending, discipline and loyalty, as well as hierarchical modes of authority.

As citizens increasingly assume the roles of informer, soldier and consumer willing to enlist in or be conscripted by the totalizing war on terror, we see the very idea of the university as a site of critical thinking, public service and socially responsible research being usurped by a manic jingoism and a market-driven fundamentalism that enshrine the entrepreneurial spirit and military aggression as means to dominate and control society. This should not surprise us, since, as William G. Martin, a professor of sociology at Binghamton University, indicates, “universities, colleges and schools have been targeted precisely because they are charged with both socializing youth and producing knowledge of peoples and cultures beyond the borders of Anglo-America.”(3) But rather than be lulled into complacency by the insidious spread of corporate and military power, we need to be prepared to reclaim institutions such as the university that have historically served as vital democratic spheres protecting and serving the interests of social justice and equality. What I want to suggest is that such a struggle is not only political, but also pedagogical in nature.

Over 17 million students pass through the hallowed halls of academe, and it is crucial that they be educated in ways that enable them to recognize creeping militarization and its effects throughout American society, particularly in terms of how these effects threaten “democratic government at home just as they menace the independence and sovereignty of other countries.”(4) But students must also recognize how such anti-democratic forces work in attempting to dismantle the university itself as a place to learn how to think critically and participate in public debate and civic engagement.(5) In part, this means giving them the tools to fight for the demilitarization of knowledge on college campuses – to resist complicity with the production of knowledge, information and technologies in classrooms and research labs that contribute to militarized goals and violence.

Even so, there is more at stake than simply educating students to be alert to the dangers of militarization and the way in which it is redefining the very mission of higher education. Chalmers Johnson, in his continuing critique of the threat that the politics of empire presents to democracy at home and abroad, argues that if the United States is not to degenerate into a military dictatorship, in spite of Obama’s election, a grass-roots movement will have to occupy center stage in opposing militarization, government secrecy and imperial power, while reclaiming the basic principles of democracy.(6) Such a task may seem daunting, but there is a crucial need for faculty, students, administrators and concerned citizens to develop alliances for long-term organizations and social movements to resist the growing ties among higher education, on the one hand, and the armed forces, intelligence agencies and war industries on the other – ties that play a crucial role in reproducing mili tarized knowledge.

Opposing militarization as part of a broader pedagogical strategy in and out of the classroom also raises the question of what kinds of competencies, skills and knowledge might be crucial to such a task. One possibility is to develop critical educational theories and practices that define the space of learning not only through the critical consumption of knowledge but also through its production for peaceful and socially just ends. In the fight against militarization and “armed intellectuals,” educators need a language of critique, but they also need a language that embraces a sense of hope and collective struggle. This means elaborating the meaning of politics through a concerted effort to expand the space of politics by reclaiming “the public character of spaces, relations, and institutions regarded as private” on the other.(7) We live at a time when matters of life and death are central to political governance. While registering the shift in power toward the large-scale pr oduction of death, disposability and exclusion, a new understanding of the meaning and purpose of higher education must also point to notions of agency, power and responsibility that operate in the service of life, democratic struggles and the expansion of human rights.

Finally, if higher education is to come to grips with the multilayered pathologies produced by militarization, it will have to rethink not merely the space of the university as a democratic public sphere, but also the global space in which intellectuals, educators, students, artists, labor unions and other social actors and movements can form transnational alliances to oppose the death-dealing ideology of militarization and its effects on the world – including violence, pollution, massive poverty, racism, the arms trade, growth of privatized armies, civil conflict, child slavery and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Bush regime comes to an end, it is time for educators and students to take a stand and develop global organizations that can be mobilized in the effort to supplant a culture of war with a culture of peace, whose elemental principles must be grounded in relations of economic, political, cultural and social democracy and the desire to sustain human life.

(1). Brainard, Jeffrey. (April 16, 2008) “U.S. Defense Secretary Asks Universities for New Cooperation,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, online at

(2). Michael Geyer, “The Militarization of Europe, 1914-1945,” in The Militarization of the Western World, ed. John Gillis (Rutgers University Press, 1989), p. 79.

(3). William G. Martin, “Manufacturing the Homeland Security Campus and Cadre,” ACAS Bulletin 70 (Spring 2005), p. 1.

(4). Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004). p. 291.

(5). See Cary Nelson, “The National Security State,” Cultural Studies 4:3 (2004), pp. 357-361.

(6). Chalmers Johnson, “Empire v. Democracy,” (January 31, 2007), available online at

(7). Jacques Rancière, “Democracy, Republic, Representation,” Constellations 13:3 (2006), p. 299.

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