Beyond the Limits of Neoliberal Higher Education: Global Youth Resistance and the American/British Divide

“We need a wholesale revision of how a democracy both listens to and treats young people.”[1]

The global reach and destructiveness of neoliberal values and disciplinary controls are not only evident in the widespread hardships and human suffering caused by the economic recession of 2008, they are also visible in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, and any vestige of the social at odds with neoliberal values. Under the regime of market fundamentalism, institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished, as are many of those public spheres where private troubles can be understood as social problems and addressed as such.[2] Privatization has run rampant, engulfing institutions as different in their goals and functions as public schools and core public services, on the one hand, and prisons, on the other. This shift from the social contract to savage forms of corporate sovereignty is part of a broader process of “reducing state support of social goods [and] means that states—the institutions best placed to defend the gains workers and other popular forces have made in previous struggles—are instead abandoning them.”[3] Faced with massive deficits, the U.S. federal government along with many states are refusing to raise taxes either on the rich or on wealthy corporations, while at the same time enacting massive cuts in everything from Medicaid programs, food banks, and worker retirement funds to higher education and health care programs for children. For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott has “proposed slashing corporate income and property taxes, laying off 6,700 state employees, cutting education funding by $4.8 billion, and cutting Medicaid by almost $4 billion. Scott’s ultimate plan is to phase the Sunshine state’s corporate income tax out entirely. He [wants] to gut Florida’s unemployment insurance system, leaving unemployed workers ‘with much less economic protection than unemployed workers in any other state in the country.’”[4] As social problems are privatized and public spaces are commodified, there has been an increased emphasis on individual solutions to socially produced problems, while at the same time market relations and the commanding institutions of capital are divorced from matters of politics, ethics, and responsibility. Free market ideology with its emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and its deregulation of economic activity now shapes practically every commanding political and economic institution in the United States. In these circumstances, notions of the public good, community, and the obligations of citizenship are replaced by the overburdened demands of individual responsibility and an utterly privatized ideal of freedom.

In the current market-driven society, with its ongoing uncertainties and collectively induced anxieties, core public values that safeguard the common good have been abandoned under a regime that promotes a survival-of-the-fittest economic doctrine. As Jeffrey Sachs points out, “Income inequality is at historic highs, but the rich claim they have no responsibility to the rest of society. They refuse to come to the aid of the destitute, and defend tax cuts at every opportunity. Almost everybody complains, almost everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.”[5] Shared sacrifice and shared responsibilities now give way to shared fears and a disdain for investing in the common good or for that matter the security of future generations of young people. Conservatives and liberals alike seem to view public values as either a hindrance to the profit-seeking goals of the allegedly free market or as a enervating drain on society. Espousing a notion of the common good is now treated as a sign of weakness, if not a dangerous pathology.[6]

Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical exchange have been increasingly commercialized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to expanding profit margins. For example, higher education is increasingly defined as another core element of corporate power and culture. Public spaces such as libraries are detached from the language of public discourse and viewed increasingly as a waste of taxpayers’ money. No longer vibrant political spheres and ethical sites, public spaces are reduced to dead spaces in which it becomes almost impossible to construct those modes of knowledge, communication, agency, and meaningful interventions necessary for an aspiring democracy. What has become clear is that the neoliberal attack on the social state, workers, and unions is now being matched by a full-fledged assault on higher education. Such attacks are not happening just in the United States but in many other parts of the globe where neoliberalism is waging a savage battle to eliminate all of those public spheres that might offer a glimmer of opposition to and protection from market-driven policies, institutions, ideology, and values. Higher education is being targeted by conservative politicians and governments because it embodies, at least ideally, a sphere in which students learn that democracy, as Jacques Rancière suggests, entails rupture, relentless critique, and dialogue about official power, its institutions, and its never-ending attempts to silent dissent.[7]

The Neoliberal Attack on Higher Education

As Ellen Schrecker points out, “Today the entire enterprise of higher education, not just its dissident professors, is under attack, both internally and externally.”[8] In England and the United States, universities and businesses are forming stronger ties; the humanities are being underfunded, student tuition is rising at astronomical rates; knowledge is being commodified; and research is valued through the lens of an audit culture. In England, the Browne Report has established modes of governance, financing, and evaluation that for all intents and purposes make higher education an adjunct of corporate values and interests.[9] Delivering improved employability has reshaped the connection between knowledge and power, while rendering faculty and students as professional entrepreneurs and budding customers. 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 neoliberal subjects.[10] This is completely at odd with the notion that higher education, in particular, is wedded to the presupposition that literacy in its various economic, political, cultural and social forms is essential to the development of a formative culture that provides the foundation for producing critically engaged and informed citizens. Clearly, any institution that makes a claim to literacy, critical dialogue, informed debate, and reason is now a threat to a political culture in which ignorance; stupidity, lies, misinformation, and appeals to the common sense have become the only currency of exchange. And this seems to apply as well to the dominant media. How else to explain the widespread public support for politicians in the United States such as Herman Cain, who is as much of a buffoon as he is an exemplary symbol of illiteracy and ignorance in the service of the political spectacle. If fact, one can argue reasonably that the entire slate of presidential Republican Party candidates extending from Rick Santorum to Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann embody not simply a rejection of science, evidence, informed argument, and other elements associated with the Enlightenment, but a deep seated disdain and hatred for any vestige of a critical mind. Ignorance now replaces knowledge and impotence with power. Almost every position they take harks back to a pre-Enlightenment period when faith and cruelty ruled the day and ignorance became the modus operandi for legitimating political and ethical impotence. Under such circumstance, it is not surprising that higher education, or for that matter any other critical public sphere in the United States and increasingly in England, occupies a high profile target for dismantlement and reform by liberal and right-wing politicians and other extremists. While there is ample commentary on the dumbing down of the culture as a result of the corporate control of the dominant media, what is often missed in this argument is how education has come under a similar attack and not simply because there is an attempt to privatize or commercialize such institutions.

Under casino capitalism, higher education matters only to the extent that it promotes national prosperity and drives economic growth, innovation, and transformation. But there is more at stake here in turning the university into an adjunct of the corporation, there is also an attempt to remove it as one of the few remaining institutions left in which dissent, critical dialogue, and social problems can be critically engaged. There is a sustained attempt on the part of the corporate elite, right wing fundamentalists, and others to disconnect the university from its role as a democratic public sphere capable of producing a critical formative culture and set of institutions in which complicated ideas can be engaged, authority challenged, power held accountable, and public intellectuals produced. Young people in the United States now recognize that the university has become part of ponzi scheme designed to place on students an unconscionable amount of debt while subjecting them under the power of commanding financial institutions for years after they graduate. Under this economic model of subservience, there is no future for young people, there is no time to talk about advancing social justice, addressing social problems, promoting critical thinking, cultivating social responsibility, or engaging non-commodified values that might challenge the neoliberal world view.

One of the most exemplary examples of how the university as a place to think is being dismantled can be seen in The Browne Report whose guiding assumptions suggest that student choice, a consumer model of pedagogy, an instrumental culture of auditing practices, and market-driven values are at the heart of the neoliberal university. Like most neoliberal models of education, higher education matters only to the extent that it promotes national prosperity and drives economic growth, innovation, and transformation.[11] Tuition will be tripled in some cases. Numerous schools will be closed. Higher education will be effectively remade according to the dictates of a corporate culture. On March 26, 2011, students in London joined with labor union activists, public service employees and others in a massive demonstration protesting the savage cuts in jobs, services, and higher education proposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government that was formed in May 2010. Yet, the government appears indifferent to the devastating consequences its policies will produce. Simon Head has suggested that the Browne policies represent a severe threat to academic freedom. In actuality, the neoliberal policies outlined in the report represent a fundamental threat to the future of democracy as well as the university—one of the few remaining institutions left in which dissent, critical dialogue, and social problems can be critically engaged.[12] What is often lost in critiques of the neoliberal university is the connection to broader society. Democracy demands a critical formative culture and set of institutions in which complicated ideas can be engaged, authority challenged, power held accountable, and public intellectuals produced. All of this is now threatened in England and other countries pushing neoliberal reforms. Under this economic model, there is no talk of advancing social justice, addressing social problems, promoting critical thinking, cultivating social responsibility, or engaging non-commodified values that might challenge the neoliberal worldview.

In the United States, the neoliberal model takes a somewhat different form since states control the budgets for higher education. Under the call for austerity, states have begun the process of massively defunding public universities, while they simultaneously provide massive tax breaks for corporations and the rich. At the same time, higher education in its search for funding has “adopted the organizational trappings of medium-sized or large corporations.”[13] University presidents are now viewed as C.E.O.s, faculty as entrepreneurs, and students as consumers. It gets worse. In some universities, new college deans are shifting their focus outside of the campus in order to take on “the fund-raising, strategic planning, and partner-seeking duties that were once the bailiwick of the university president.”[14] Academic leadership is now defined in part through the ability to partner up with corporate donors. In fact, deans are increasingly viewed as the heads of complex businesses, and their job performance is rated according to their fund-raising capacity.

College presidents now willingly and openly align themselves with corporate interests. The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported that “presidents from 19 of the top 40 research universities with the largest operating budges sat on at least one company board.”[15] As business culture permeates higher education, all manner of school practices from food service and specific modes of instruction to hiring temporary faculty is now outsourced to private contractors. In the process of adopting market values and cutting costs, classes have ballooned in size. For faculty and students alike, there is an increased emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing. Tuition fees have skyrocketed, making it impossible for thousands of working-class youth to gain access to higher education. Moreover, the value of higher education is now tied exclusively to the need for credentials. Disciplines and subjects that do not fall within the purview of mathematical utility and economic rationality are seen as dispensable.

To see other articles by Henry A. Giroux visit The Public Intellectual Project.

Among the most serious consequences facing faculty in the United States under the reign of neoliberal austerity and disciplinary measures is the increased casualization of academic labor. As universities adopt models of corporate governance, they are aggressively eliminating tenure positions, increasing part-time and full-time positions without the guarantee of tenure, and attacking faculty unions. In a number of states such as Ohio and Utah, legislatures have passed bills outlawing tenure, while in Wisconsin the governor has abrogated the bargaining rights of state university faculty.[16] At a time when higher education is becoming increasingly vocationalized, the ranks of tenure-track faculty are being drastically depleted in the United States, furthering the loss of faculty as stakeholders. Currently, only 27 percent of faculty are either on a tenure track or in a full-time tenure position. As faculty are demoted to contingency forms of labor, they lose their power to influence the conditions of their work; they see their work load increase; they are paid poorly, deprived of office space and supplies, and refused travel money; and, most significantly, they are subject to policies that allow them to be fired at will.[17] The latter is particularly egregious because, when coupled with an ongoing series of attacks by right-wing ideologues against left-oriented and progressive academics, many non-tenured faculty begin to censor themselves in their classes. At a time when critical faculty might be fired for their political beliefs, have their names posted on right-wing web sites, be forced to turn over their email correspondence to right-wing groups,[18] or face harassment by the conservative press, it is crucial that protections be put in place that safeguard their positions and enable them to exercise the right of academic freedom.[19]

Neoliberal and right-wing political attacks on higher education and the rise of student protests movements in England and the United States, in particular, must be viewed within a broader political landscape that goes far beyond a critique of massive increases in student tuition. A broader analysis is needed to provide insights into how neoliberal policies and modes of resistance manifest themselves in different historical contexts while also offering possibilities for building alliances among different student groups across a range of countries. What both the UK and the US share is a full-fledged attack by corporate and market-driven forces to destroy higher education as a democratic public sphere, despite the ongoing “desirability of an educated population to sustain a vibrant democracy and culture that provides a key component of the good life.”[20] Viewed as simply a training ground for the corporate order, higher education will surely default on the promise of a democratic future for young people and any investment in a social state capable of creating the conditions in which it becomes possible for young people to imagine another world outside of the economic Darwinism that now bears down on every aspect of their lives.

Students Against Neoliberal Authoritarianism

In the face of the mass uprisings in England and other European and Middle Eastern countries, many commentators have raised questions about why comparable forms of widespread resistance did not take place earlier among American youth. Before the Occupy Wall Street protests, everyone from left critics to mainstream radio commentators voiced surprise and disappointment that American youth appeared unengaged by the collective action of their counterparts in other countries. In a wave of global protests that indicted the lack of vision, courage, and responsibility on the part of their elders and political leaders, young people in London, Paris, Tunis, and Athens were taking history into their own hands. Fighting not merely for a space to survive, but also for a society in which matters of justice, dignity, and freedom are objects of collective struggle, these demonstrations have created a new stage on which young people once again are defining what John Pilger calls the “theater of the possible.”[21] Signaling a generational and political crisis that is global in scope, young people sent a message to the world that they refuse to live any longer under repressive authoritarian regimes sustained by morally bankrupt market-driven policies and repressive governments. Throughout Europe, students protested the attack on the social state, the savagery of neoliberal policies, and the devaluation of higher education as a public good. In doing so, they defied a social order in which they could not work at a decent job, have access to a quality education, or support a family—a social order that offered them a meager life stripped of self-determination and dignity. In London, students have been at the forefront of massive progressive movement protesting against a Cameron-Clegg government that has imposed, under the ideological rubric of austerity slash and burn policies, drastic cuts to public spending. These draconian policies are designed to shift the burden and responsibility of the recession from the rich to the most vulnerable elements of society such as the elderly, workers, lower-income people, and students. While young people in the United States did not take to the streets as quickly as their European counterparts, they are now out in full force with the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the United States young people are now not simply protesting tuition increases, the defunding of academia, and the enormous debt many of them are laboring under, they are also situating such concerns within a broader attack on the fundamental institutions and ideology of casino capitalism in its particularly virulent neoliberal form. The Occupy Wall Street movement is now at the forefront of moving away from focusing on isolated issues in an attempt to develop a broader critique as the basis for an energized social movement that is less interested in liberal reforms than in a wholesale restructuring of American society under more radical and democratic values, social relations, and institutions of power. What is ironic about this movement is that very few progressives saw it coming and had for all intent and purposes written off the possibility of a new youth movement protesting against the savage policies of neoliberalism.

For example, some commentators, including Courtney Martin, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, suggested that the problem is one of privilege. In a 2010 article for the magazine titled “Why Class Matters in Campus Activism,” Martin argues that American students are often privileged and view politics as something that happens elsewhere, far removed from local activism.[22]

Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialized to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad—where the “real” poor people are. We found nonprofits aimed at schooling children all over the globe while rarely acknowledging that our friend from the high school football team can’t afford the same kind of opportunities we can. Or we create Third World bicycle programs while ignoring that our lab partner has to travel two hours by bus, as he is unable to get a driver’s license as an undocumented immigrant. We were born lucky, so we head to the bars—oblivious to the rising tuition prices and crushing bureaucracy inside the financial aid office. [23]

This theme is taken up in greater detail in Martin’s latest book Do It Anyway: A New Generation of Activists. Sadly, however, the analysis Martin provides in that book suffers, like her piece in The American Prospect, from the same sort of privilege that it critiques. It suggests not only that privileged middle-class kids are somehow the appropriate vanguard of change for this generation, but that they suffer from both a narcissistic refusal to look inward and an ego-driven sense of politics that is as narrow as it is paternalistic and missionary in focus. This critique is too simple, overlooks complexity, and ignores social issues in a manner as objectionable as the alleged youth’s attitudes that it finds so lacking.

The other side of the over-privileged youth argument is suggested by long-time activist Tom Hayden, who argues that many students are so saddled with financial debt and focused on what it takes to get a job that they have little time for political activism.[24] According to Hayden, student activism in the United States, especially since the 1980s, has been narrowly issues-based, ranging from a focus on student unionization and gender equity to environmental issues and greater minority enrollment, thus circumscribing in advance youth participation in larger political spheres.[25] While Martin and Hayden both offer enticing narratives to explain the belated onslaught of student resistance, Simon Talley, a writer for Campus Progress, may be closer to the truth in claiming that students in the United States have had less of an investment in higher education than European students because for the last thirty years they have been told that higher education neither serves a public good nor is a valuable democratic public sphere.[26]

These commentators, however much they sometimes got it right, still underestimated the historical and current impacts of the conservative political climate on American campuses and the culture of youth protest. This conservatism took firm hold with the election of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of both neoconservative and neoliberal disciplinary apparatuses since the 1980s. Youth have in fact been very active in the last few decades, but in many instances for deeply conservative ends. As Susan Searls Giroux has argued, a series of well-funded, right-wing campus organizations have made much use of old and new media to produce best-selling screeds as well as interactive websites for students to report injustices in the interests of protesting the alleged left-totalitarianism of the academy. In her book Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility and the University to Come, Susan Searls Giroux writes:

Conservative think tanks provide $20 million annually to the campus Right, according to the People for the American Way, to fund campus organizations such as Students for Academic Freedom, whose credo is “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story” and boasts over 150 campus chapters. Providing an online complaint form for disgruntled students to fill out, the organization’s website monitors insults, slurs and claims of more serious infractions that students claim to have suffered. Similarly, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded by William F. Buckley, funds over 80 right-wing student publications through its Collegiate Network, which has produced such media darlings as Dinesh D’Sousa and Ann Coulter. There is also the Leadership Institute, which trains, supports and does public relations for 213 conservative student groups who are provided with suggestions for inviting conservative speakers to campus, help starting conservative newspapers, or training to win campus elections. Or the Young Americans for Freedom, which sponsors various campus activities such as “affirmative action bake sales” where students are charged variously according to their race or ethnicity, or announcements of “whites only” scholarships.[27]

Liberal students, for their part, have engaged in forms of activism that also tend to mimic neoliberal rationalities. The increasing emphasis on consumerism, immediate gratification, and the narcissistic ethic of privatization took its toll in a range of student protests developed over issues such as the right to party and “a defense of the right to consume alcohol.”[28] As Mark Edelman Boren points out in his informative book on student resistance, alcohol-related issues caused student uprisings on a number of American campuses. He recounts one telling example: “At Ohio University, several thousand students rioted in April 1998 for a second annual violent protest over the loss of an hour of drinking when clocks were officially set back at the beginning of daylight savings time; forced out of area bars, upset students hurled rocks and bottles at police, who knew to show up in full riot gear after the previous year’s riot. The troops finally resorted to shooting wooden ‘knee-knocker’ bullets at the rioters to suppress them.”[29]

Widening the Lens

All of these explanations have some merit in accounting for the lack of resistance among American students up until the current Occupy Wall Street movement, but I’d like to shift the focus of the analysis. Student resistance in the United States should be viewed within a broader political landscape, especially for what it might tell us about the direction the current Wall Street protests might take; yet, with few exceptions, this landscape still remains unexamined. First, we have to remember that students in England, in particular, were faced with a series of crises that were more immediate, bold, and radical in their assault on young people and the institutions that bear down heavily on their lives than those in the United States. In the face of the economic recession, educational budgets were and continue to be cut in an extreme take-no-prisoners fashion; the social state is being radically dismantled; tuition costs have spiked exponentially; and unemployment rates for young people are far higher than in the United States (with the exception of youth in poor minority communities). English students have experienced a massive and bold assault on their lives, educational opportunities, and their future. Moreover, such students live in a society where it becomes more difficult to collapse public life into largely private considerations. Students in these countries have access to a wider range of critical public spheres; politics in many of these countries has not collapsed entirely into the spectacle of celebrity/commodity culture; left-oriented political parties still exist; and labor unions have more political and ideological clout than they do in the United States. Alternative newspapers, progressive media, and a profound sense of the political constitute elements of a vibrant, critical formative culture within a wide range of public spheres that have helped nurture and sustain the possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organize collectively, and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and critical theories can be developed.

In the United States, by contrast, the assault on colleges and universities has been less uniform. Because of the diverse nature of how higher education is financed and governed, the cuts to funding and services have been differentially spread out among community colleges, public universities, and elite colleges, thus lacking a unified, oppressive narrative against which to position resistance. Moreover, the campus “culture wars” narrative has served to galvanize many youth around a reactionary cultural project while distancing them from the very nature of the economic and political assault being waged against their future. All this suggests that another set of questions has to be raised. The more important questions, ones which do not reproduce the all too commonplace demonization of young people as merely apathetic, are twofold. First, the issue should not be why there have been no student protests up till recently, but why previous protests have been largely ignored? Evidence of such emerging protests, in fact, have been quite widespread. The student protests against the draconian right-wing policies attempting to destroy the union rights and collective bargaining power of teachers supported by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin is one example indicating that students were in fact engaged and concerned. There were also smaller student protests taking place at various colleges, including Berkeley, CUNY, and other campuses throughout the United States. Until recently, student activists constituted a minority of U.S. students, with very few enrolled in professional programs. Most student activists have come from the arts, social sciences, and humanities (the conscience of the college). Second, there is the crucial issue regarding what sort of disabling conditions young people have inherited in American society. What political and cultural shifts have worked together to undermine their ability to be critical agents capable of waging a massive protest movement against the growing injustices they face on a daily basis? After all, the assault on higher education in the United States, while not as severe as in Europe, still provides ample reason for students to be in the streets protesting.

Close to 43 states have pledged major cuts to higher education in order to compensate for insufficient state funding. This means an unprecedented hike in tuition rates is being implemented; enrollments are being slashed; salaries are being reduced; and need-based scholarships in some states are being eliminated. Pell Grants, which allow poor students to attend college, are also being cut. Robert Reich has chronicled some of the specific impacts on university budgets, which include: cutting state funding for higher education by $151 million in Georgia; reducing student financial aid by $135 million in Michigan;[30] raising tuition by 15 percent in Florida’s eleven public universities; and increasing tuition by 40 percent in just two years at the University of California.[31] As striking as these increases are, tuition has been steadily rising over the past several decades, becoming a disturbingly normative feature of post-secondary education in the United States.

A further reason that American students took so long to begin to mobilize may be because by the time the average American student now graduates, he or she has not only a degree but also an average debt of about $23,000.[32] As Jeffrey Williams points out in his 2008 article for Dissent, “Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture,” this debt amounts to a growing form of indentured servitude for many students. Being burdened by excessive debt upon graduation only to encounter growing rates of unemployment—“unemployment for recent college graduates rose from 5.8 percent to 8.7 percent in 2009”[33]—surely undercuts the opportunity to think about, organize, and engage in social activism. In other words, crippling debt plus few job prospects in a society in which individuals are relentlessly held as being solely responsible for the problems they experience leave little room for rethinking the importance of larger social issues or the necessity for organized collective action against systemic injustice. In addition, as higher education increasingly becomes a fundamental requirement for employment, many universities have been able to justify the reconfiguration of their mission exclusively in corporate terms. They have replaced education with training, while defining students as consumers, faculty as a cheap form of subaltern labor, and entire academic departments as revenue generating units.[34] No longer seen as a public good or a site of social struggle, higher education is increasingly viewed as a credential mill for success in the global economy.

Meanwhile, not only have academic jobs been disappearing, but given the shift to an instrumentalist education that is decidedly technicist in nature, the culture of critical thinking has been slowly disappearing on U.S. campuses as well. As universities and colleges emphasize market-based skills, students are learning neither how to think critically nor how to connect their private troubles with larger public issues. The humanities continues to be downsized, eliminating some of the most important opportunities many students will ever have to develop a commitment to public values, social responsibilities, and the broader demands of critical citizenship. Moreover, critical thinking has been devalued as a result of the growing corporatization of higher education. Under the influence of corporate values, thought in its most operative sense loses its modus operandi as a critical mediation on “civilization, existence, and forms of evaluation.”[35] It has become increasingly difficult for students to recognize how their formal education and social development in the broadest sense have been systematically devalued, and how this not only undercuts their ability to be engaged critics but contributes to the further erosion of what is left of U.S. democracy. How else to explain the reticence of students with the last decade toward protesting against tuition hikes? The forms of instrumental training they receive undermine any critical capacity to connect the fees they pay to the fact that the United States puts more money into the funding of wars, armed forces, and military weaponry than the next 25 countries combined—money that could otherwise fund higher education.[36] The inability to be critical of such injustices and to relate them to a broader understanding of politics suggests a failure to think outside of the prescriptive sensibilities of a neoliberal ideology that isolates knowledge and normalizes its own power relations. In fact, one recent study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that “45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.”[37]

The corporatization of schooling and the commodification of knowledge over the last few decades has done more than make universities into adjuncts of corporate power. It has produced a culture of critical illiteracy and further undermined the conditions necessary to enable students to become truly engaged, political agents. The value of knowledge is now linked to a crude instrumentalism, and the only mode of education that seems to matter is that which enthusiastically endorses learning marketable skills, embracing a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, and defining the good life solely through accumulation and disposal of the latest consumer goods. Academic knowledge has been stripped of its value as a social good. To be relevant, and therefore adequately funded, knowledge has to justify itself in market terms, or simply perish.

Enforced privatization, the closing down of critical public spheres, and the endless commodification of all aspects of social life have created a generation of students who are increasingly being reared in a society in which politics is viewed as irrelevant, while the struggle for democracy is being erased from social memory. This is not to suggest that Americans have abandoned the notion that ideas have power or that ideologies can move people. Progressives pose an earnest challenge to right-wing ideologies and policies, but they seem less inclined to acknowledge the diverse ways in which the pedagogical force of the wider culture functions in the production, distribution, and regulation of both power and meaning. By contrast, the conservative willingness to use the educational force of the culture explains in part both the rapid rise of the Tea Party movement and the fact that it seemed to have no counterpart among progressives in the United States, especially young people, though this is now changing given the arrogant and right-wing attacks being waged on unions, public sector workers, and public school educators in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, and other states where Tea Party candidates have come to power.[38] Progressives, largely unwilling to engage in a serious manner the educational force of the larger culture as part of their political strategy, have failed to theorize how conservatives successfully seize upon this element of politics in ways that far outstrip its use by the left and other progressive forces. Missing from their critical analyses is any understanding of how public pedagogy has become a central element of politics itself.

Public pedagogy in this sense refers to the array of different sites and technologies of image-based media and screen culture that are reconfiguring the very nature of politics, cultural production, knowledge, and social relations. Market-driven modes of public pedagogy now dominate major cultural apparatuses such as mainstream electronic and print media and other elements of screen culture, whose one-sided activities, permeated by corporate values, proceed more often than not unchallenged. Left to their own devices by progressive movements who for decades have largely refused to take public pedagogy seriously as part of their political strategy, the new and old media with their depoliticized pedagogies of consumption may finally be encountering some resistance from the rising student protests around the globe.

Higher Education and the Erasure of Critical Formative Cultures

In a social order dominated by the relentless privatizing and commodification of everyday life and the elimination of critical public spheres, young people find themselves in a society in which the formative cultures necessary for a democracy to exist have been more or less eliminated, or reduced to spectacles of consumerism made palatable through a daily diet of game shows, reality TV, and celebrity culture. What is particularly troubling in American society is the absence of vital formative cultures necessary to construct questioning persons who are capable of seeing through the consumer come-ons, who can dissent and act collectively in an increasingly imperiled democracy. Sheldon Wolin is instructive in his insistence that the creation of a democratic formative culture is fundamental to enabling both political agency and a critical understanding of what it means to sustain a viable democracy. According to Wolin,

“democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. What is at stake in democratic politics is whether ordinary men and women can recognize that their concerns are best protected and cultivated under a regime whose actions are governed by principles of commonality, equality, and fairness, a regime in which taking part in politics becomes a way of staking out and sharing in a common life and its forms of self-fulfillment. Democracy is not about bowling together but about managing together those powers that immediately and significantly affect the lives and circumstances of others and one’s self.” [39]

Instead of public spheres that promote dialogue, debate, and arguments with supporting evidence, American society offers young people a conservatizing, consumer-driven culture through entertainment spheres that infantilize almost everything they touch, while legitimating opinions that utterly disregard evidence, reason, truth, and civility. The delete button has replaced the critical knowledge and the modes of education needed for long-term commitments and the search for the good society. Intimate and committed social attachments are short-lived, and the pleasure of instant gratification cancels out the coupling of freedom, reason, and responsibility. As a long-term social investment, young people are now viewed in market terms as a liability, if not a pathology. No longer a symbol of hope and the future, they are viewed as a drain on the economy, and if they do not assume the role of functioning consumers, they are considered disposable.

Within the last thirty years, the United States under the reign of market fundamentalism has been transformed into a society that is more about forgetting than learning, more about consuming than producing, more about asserting private interests than democratic rights. In a society obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, American youth are not encouraged to participate in politics. Nor are they offered the help, guidance, and modes of education that cultivate the capacities for critical thinking and engaged citizenship. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, in a consumerist society, “the tyranny of the moment makes it difficult to live in the present, never mind understand society within a range of larger totalities.”[40] Under such circumstances, according to Theodor Adorno, thinking loses its ability to point beyond itself and is reduced to mimicking existing certainties and modes of common sense. Thought cannot sustain itself and becomes short-lived, fickle, and ephemeral. If young people do not display a strong commitment to democratic politics and collective struggle, then, it is because they have lived through thirty years of what I have elsewhere called “a debilitating and humiliating disinvestment in their future,” especially if they are marginalized by class, ethnicity, and race.[41]

What is different about this generation of young people from past generations is that today’s youth have been immersed since birth in a relentless, spreading neoliberal pedagogical apparatus with its celebration of an unbridled individualism and its near pathological disdain for community, public values, and the public good. They have been inundated by a market-driven value system that encourages a culture of competitiveness and produces a theater of cruelty that has resulted in what Bauman calls “a weakening of democratic pressures, a growing inability to act politically, [and] a massive exit from politics and from responsible citizenship.”[42] And, yet, they refuse to allow this deadening apparatus of force, manufactured ignorance, and ideological domination to shape their lives. Reclaiming both the possibilities inherent in the political use of new digital technologies and the social media, American students are now protesting in large numbers the ongoing intense attack on higher education and the welfare state, refusing a social order shaped by what Alex Honneth describes as “an abyss of failed sociality” one in which “the perceived suffering [of youth] has still not found resonance in the public space of articulation.”[43]

Young people, students, and other members of the 99 percent are no longer simply enduring the great injustices they see around them, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the corruption of American politics by casino capitalism, a permanent war economy, and the growing disinvestment in public and higher education, they are now building new public spaces, confronting a brutalizing police apparatus with their bodies, and refusing to put up with the right wing notion that they are part of what is often called a “failed generation.” On the contrary, young people, especially, have flipped the script and are making clear that the failures of casino capitalism lies elsewhere and point to the psychological and social consequences of growing up under a neoliberal regime that goes to great lengths to enshrine ignorance, privatize hope, derail public values, and undercut economic inequality and its attendant social injustices. What the Occupy Wall Street protesters like their counterparts in London, Athens, Cairo and elsewhere have made clear is that casino capitalism is the site of not only political corruption and economic fraud, but also reproduces a “failed sociality” that hijacks any semblance of critical thinking and agency along with any viable attempt of democracy to deliver on its promises.

In the face of a politically organized ignorance on the part of right-wing anti-public intellectuals, think tanks, media organizations, and politicians, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have refused to provide recipes and blueprints about a longed for utopian future. Instead, they have resurrected the most profound elements of a radical politics, one which recognizes critical education, dialogue, and new modes of solidarity and communication serve as a condition for their own autonomy and for the sustainability of democratization as an ongoing social movement. What terrifies the corporate rich, bankers, media pundits, and other bloviators about this movement is not that it has captured the attention of the broader public but that it constantly hammers home the message that a substantive democracy requires citizens capable of self-reflection and social criticism, and that such citizens through their collective struggles are the product of critical formative culture in which people are provided with the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in developing a radically democratic society. And this fear on the part of ruling classes and the corporate elite has gone global.

What we see in the struggle for educational reforms in England and other parts of the globe is a larger struggle for the economic, political, and social conditions that give meaning and substance to what it means to make democracy possible. When we see 15-year-olds battling against established oppressive orders in the streets of Paris, Cairo, and Athens, in the hope of forging a more just society, we are being offered a glimpse of what it means for youth to enter “modernist narratives as trouble.”[44] This expression of “trouble” exceeds the dominant society’s eagerness to view youth as a pathology, as monsters, or as a drain on the market-driven order. Instead, trouble in this sense speaks to something more suggestive of what John and Jean Comaroff call the “productive unsettling of dominant epistemic regimes under the heat of desire, frustration, or anger.”[45] The expectations that frame market-driven societies are losing their grip on young people, who can no longer be completely seduced or controlled by the tawdry promises and failed returns of corporate dominated and authoritarian regimes.

These youth movements tell us that the social visions embedded in casino capitalism and deeply authoritarian regimes have lost their ability to normalize their values as well as their power to intimidate and silence through threats, coercion, and state violence. Rejecting the terrors of the present along with the modernist dreams of progress at any cost, young people have become, at least for the moment, harbingers of a radical democracy fashioned through the desires, dreams, and hopes of a world based on the principles of equality, justice, and freedom. In doing so, they are pointing to a world order in which the future will certainly not mimic the present. The manufactured hopelessness that permeated neoliberal governments since the 1970s has been shattered by the Occupy movement in the U.S. and youth movements all over the globe. What might be characterized by some commentators as an outburst of youthful utopianism reminiscent of the 1960s may in fact be the outcome of “the most concrete and pressing reality.”[46]

What is truly remarkable about this movement is its emphasis on connecting learning to social change and its willingness to do so through new and collective modes of education. What is so encouraging in this movement is that it views its very existence and collective identity as part of a larger struggle for the economic, political, and social conditions that give meaning and substance to what it means to make democracy possible. The expectations that frame market-driven societies are losing their grip on young people and others, who can no longer be completely seduced or controlled by the tawdry promises and failed returns of corporate dominated and authoritarian regimes. In the United States, the Occupy Wall Street protests are making clear that the social visions embedded in casino capitalism and deeply authoritarian regimes have lost both their utopian thrust and their ability to persuade and intimidate through manufactured consent, threats, coercion, and state violence. Rejecting the terrors of the present along with the modernist dreams of progress at any cost, young people have become, at least for the moment, harbingers of democracy fashioned through the desires, dreams, and hopes of a world based on the principles of equality, justice, and freedom. One of the most famous slogans of May 1968 was “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” The spirit of that slogan is alive once again. But what is different this time is that it appears to be more than a slogan, it now echoes throughout the United States and abroad as both a discourse of critique and as part of a vocabulary of possibility and long-term collective struggle. The current right-wing politics of illiteracy, exploitation, and cruelty can no longer hide in the cave of ignorance, legitimated by their shameful accomplices in the dominant media. The lights have come on all over the United States and young people, workers, and other progressives are on the move. Thinking is no longer seen as an act of stupidity, acting collectively is no longer viewed as unimaginable, and young people are no longer willing to be viewed as disposable.

In the United States, the most important question to be raised about American students is no longer why they do not engage in massive protests, but when will they join their youthful counterparts protesting in London, Athens, and elsewhere in building a global democratic order in which they can imagine a future different than the present that now stunts their dreams as much as their daily experiences? The test of these movements will be their ability to develop national associations and international alliances that can be sustained for the long run. But this will only happen when young people and others begin to organize collectively in order to develop the formative cultures, public spheres, and institutions that are crucial to helping them confront neoliberalism and the threats it poses to the environment, public goods, and those dispossessed by race, class, and age. Only then will they join together in individual and collective efforts to reclaim higher education as a public good vital for creating new imaginaries and democratic social visions.


[1]. Andy Mycock, “Student Protests Give Voice to the ‘Disconnected’ Generation,” (December 9, 2010). Online at:

[2]. This theme is take up powerfully by a number of theorists. See C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Norton, 1974); Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Henry A. Giroux, Public Spaces, Private Lives (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

[3]. Craig Calhoun, “Information Technology and the International Public Sphere,” in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Society in Cyberspace, ed. Douglas Schuler and Peter Day (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), p. 241.

[4]. Zaid Jilani, Faiz Shakir, Benjamin Armbruster, George Zornick, Alex Seitz-Wald, and Tanya Somanader, “Rewarding Corporations While Punishing Workers,” Progress Report (March 18, 2011). Online at:

[5]. Jeffrey Sachs, “America’s Deepening Moral Crisis,” The Guardian (October 4, 2010).

Online at:

[6]. Classic examples of this can be found in the work of Milton Friedman and the fictional accounts of Ayn Rand. It is a position endlessly reproduced in conservative foundations and institutes such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Hudson Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the Hoover Institute. One particularly influential book that shaped social policy along these lines is Charles Murray, Losing Ground (New York: Basic, 1994).

[7]. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (London: Verso 2006).

[8]. Ellen Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education (New York: The New Press, 2010), p. 3.

[9]. A number of important critiques of the Browne Report and the conservative-liberal attack on higher education include: Simon Head, “The Grim Threat to British Universities,” New York Review of Books (January 13, 2011), online at:; Anthony T. Grafton, “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities,” New York Review of Books (March 10, 2010), p. 32; Nick Couldry, “Fighting for the Life of the English University in 2010,” unpublished manuscript; Stefan Collini, “Browne’s Gamble,” London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 21 (November 4, 2010), pp. 23-25; Stanley Fish, “The Value of Higher Education Made Literal,” New York Times (December 13, 2010), online at:; Aisha Labi, “British Universities and Businesses Are Forming Stronger Research Ties,” Chronicle of Higher Education (October 4, 2010),

Online at:; and Terry Eagleton, “The Death of Universities,” The Guardian (December 17, 2010),

Online at:

[10]. Michael Collins, “Universities Need Reform – But the Market Is Not the Answer,” (November 23, 2010). Online at:

[11]. Collini, “Browne’s Gamble.”

[12]. Head, “The Grim Threat to British Universities.”

[13]. Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” Against Schooling: For an Education That Matters (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), p. xv.

[14]. Kathryn Masterson, “Off Campus Is Now the Place to Be for Deans,” Chronicle of Higher Education (March 6, 2011). Online at:

[15]. Jason Del Gandio, “Neoliberalism and the Academic-Industrial Complex,” (August 12, 2010). Online at:

[16]. Scott Jaschik, “New Tactic to Kill Faculty Unions,” Inside Higher Ed (March 3, 2011).

Online at:

[17]. Schrecker, The Lost Soul of Higher Education, pp. 206–215.

[18]. Evan McMorris-Santoro, “Conservative Think Tank Seeks Michigan Profs’ Emails About Wisconsin Union Battle … and Maddow,” Talking Points Memo (March 29, 2010); Paul Krugman, “American Thought Police,” New York Times (March 27, 2011), p. A27.

[19]. I take up these attacks in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008).

[20]. Stanley Aronowitz, “The Knowledge Factory,” The Indypendent (March 16, 2011).

Online at:

[21]. John Pilger, “The Revolt in Egypt Is Coming Home,” (February 10, 2011). Online at:

[22]. Courtney Martin, Do It Anyway: A New Generation of Activists (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).

[23]. Courtney E. Martin, “Why Class Matters in Campus Activism,” American Prospect (December 6, 2010). Online at:

[24]. Cited in ibid.

[25]. Mark Edelman Boren, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 227.

[26]. Simeon Talley, “Why Aren’t Students in the U.S. Protesting Tuition, Too?” Campus Progress (December 23, 2010). Online at:

[27]. Susan Searls Giroux, Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 79.

[28]. Edelman Boren, Student Resistance, p. 228.

[29]. Edelman Boren, Student Resistance, p. 228.

[30]. Robert Reich, “The Attack on American Education,” (December 23, 2010). Online at:

[31]. Ibid.

[32]. There are many books and articles that take up this issue. One of the most incisive commentators is Jeffrey Williams, “Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture,” Dissent (Fall 2008). Online at:

[33]. David Mascriotra, “The Rich Get Richer and the Young Go into Deep Debt,” BuzzFlash (December 6, 2010). Online at:

[34]. Head, “The Grim Threat to British Universities.”

[35]. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. 9.

[36]. Tom Engelhardt, “An American World War: What to Watch for in 2010,” (January 3, 2010). Online at: See also Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).

[37]. Eric Gorski, “45% of Students Don’t Learn Much in College,” Huffington Post (January 21, 2011). Online at:’t-learn_n_810224.html. The study is taken from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[38]. Surely, there is a certain irony in the fact that the work of Gene Sharp, a little known American theorist in non-violent action, is inspiring young people all over the world to resist authoritarian governments. Yet, his work is almost completely ignored by young people in the United States. See, for instance, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in Revolution,” New York Times (February 16, 2011), p. A1. See, in particular, Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

[39]. Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 259–260.

[40]. Zygmunt Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 159.

[41]. Ibid., p. 235. I have also taken up this theme in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[42]. Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (London: Polity, 2001), p. 55.

[43]. Alex Honneth, Pathologies of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 188.

[44]. John and Jean Comaroff, “Reflections on Youth from the Past to the Postcolony,” in Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, ed. Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 268.

[45]. Ibid.

[46]. Cited in Pacale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, “Translator’s Note,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. xii.