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Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University

To the extent that universities do not fight to be safely ensconced at the

Part of the Series

I want to begin with the words of the late African-American poet, Audre Lourde, who was in her time a formidable writer, educator, feminist, gay rights activist and public intellectual who displayed a relentless courage in addressing the injustices she witnessed all around her. She writes:

Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.1

And while Lourde refers to poetry here, I think a strong case can be made that the attributes she ascribes to poetry can also be attributed to higher education – a genuine higher education.2 In this case, an education that includes history, philosophy, all of the arts and humanities, the criticality of the social sciences, the world of discovery made manifest by science, and the transformations in health and in law wrought by the professions that are fundamental to what it means to know something about the human condition. Lourde’s defense of poetry as a mode of education is especially crucial for those of us who believe that the university is nothing if it is not a public trust and social good; that is a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility and the struggle for justice. At best, universities should be at the “heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times.”3 It is in the spirit of such an ideal that I first want to address those larger economic, social, and cultural interests that threaten this notion of education, especially higher education.

Across the globe, the forces of casino capitalism are on the march. With the return of the Gilded Age and its dream worlds of consumption, privatization and deregulation, not only are democratic values and social protections at risk, but the civic and formative cultures that make such values and protections crucial to democratic life are in danger of disappearing altogether. As public spheres, once enlivened by broad engagements with common concerns, are being transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” the flight from mutual obligations and social responsibilities intensifies and has resulted in what Tony Judt identifies as a “loss of faith in the culture of open democracy.”4 This loss of faith in the power of public dialogue and dissent is not unrelated to the diminished belief in higher education as central to producing critical citizens and a crucial democratic public sphere in its own right. At stake here is not only the meaning and purpose of higher education, but also civil society, politics and the fate of democracy itself. Thomas Frank is on target when he argues that “Over the course of the past few decades, the power of concentrated money has subverted professions, destroyed small investors, wrecked the regulatory state, corrupted legislators en masse and repeatedly put the economy through the wringer. Now it has come for our democracy itself.”5 And, yet, the only questions being asked about knowledge production, the purpose of education, the nature of politics, and our understanding of the future are determined largely by market forces.

The mantras of neoliberalism are now well known: Government is the problem; Society is a fiction; Sovereignty is market-driven; Deregulation and commodification are vehicles for freedom; and Higher education should serve corporate interests rather than the public good. In addition, the yardstick of profit has become the only viable measure of the good life, while civic engagement and public spheres devoted to the common good are viewed by many politicians and their publics as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or alibis for government inefficiency and waste.

In a market-driven system in which economic and political decisions are removed from social costs, the flight of critical thought and social responsibility is further accentuated by what Zygmunt Bauman calls “ethical tranquillization.”6 One result is a form of depoliticization that works its way through the social order, removing social relations from the configurations of power that shape them, substituting what Wendy Brown calls “emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems.”6 Consequently, it becomes difficult for young people too often bereft of a critical education to translate private troubles into public concerns. As private interests trump the public good, public spaces are corroded, and short-term personal advantage replaces any larger notion of civic engagement and social responsibility.

Under such circumstances, to cite C. W. Mills, we are witnessing the breakdown of democracy, the disappearance of critical intellectuals and “the collapse of those public spheres which offer a sense of critical agency and social imagination.”8 Mill’s prescient comments amplify what has become a tragic reality. Missing from neoliberal market societies are those public spheres – from public and higher education to the mainstream media and digital screen culture – where people can develop what might be called the civic imagination. For example, in the last few decades, we have seen market mentalities attempt to strip education of its public values, critical content and civic responsibilities as part of its broader goal of creating new subjects wedded to consumerism, risk-free relationships and the disappearance of the social state in the name of individual, expanded choice. Tied largely to instrumental ideologies and measurable paradigms, many institutions of higher education are now committed almost exclusively to economic goals, such as preparing students for the workforce – all done as part of an appeal to rationality, one that eschews matters of inequality, power and the ethical grammars of suffering.9 Many universities have not only strayed from their democratic mission, they also seem immune to the plight of students who face a harsh new world of high unemployment, the prospect of downward mobility and debilitating debt.

The question of what kind of education is needed for students to be informed and active citizens in a world that increasingly ignores their needs, if not their future, is rarely asked.10 In the absence of a democratic vision of schooling, it is not surprising that some colleges and universities are increasingly opening their classrooms to corporate interests, standardizing the curriculum, instituting top-down governing structures, and generating courses that promote entrepreneurial values unfettered by social concerns or ethical consequences. For example, one university is offering a master’s degree to students who, in order to fulfill their academic requirements, have to commit to starting a high-tech company. Another university allows career officers to teach capstone research seminars in the humanities. In one of these classes, the students were asked to “develop a 30-second commercial on their ‘personal brand.’ “11 This is not an argument against career counseling or research in humanities seminars, but the confusion in collapsing the two.

Central to this neoliberal view of higher education in the United States and United Kingdom is a market-driven paradigm that seeks to eliminate tenure, turn the humanities into a job preparation service, and transform most faculty into an army of temporary subaltern labor For instance, in the United States out of 1.5 million faculty members, 1 million are “adjuncts who are earning, on average, $20,000 a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, no unemployment insurance when they are out of work.”12 The indentured service status of such faculty is put on full display as some colleges have resorted to using “temporary service agencies to do their formal hiring.”13

There is little talk in this view of higher education about the history and value of shared governance between faculty and administrators, nor of educating students as critical citizens rather than potential employees of Walmart. There are few attempts to affirm faculty as scholars and public intellectuals who have both a measure of autonomy and power. Instead, faculty members are increasingly defined less as intellectuals than as technicians and grant writers. Students fare no better in this debased form of education and are treated as either clients or as restless children in need of high-energy entertainment – as was made clear in the 2012 Penn State scandal. Such modes of education do not foster a sense of organized responsibility fundamental to a democracy. Instead, they encourage what might be called a sense of organized irresponsibility – a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism and civic corruption at the heart of a debased politics.

Higher Education and the Crisis of Legitimacy

In the United States and increasingly in Canada, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to diminished funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the diminished role of faculty in governing the university, all of which both contradict the culture and democratic value of higher education and makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere. Decreased financial support for higher education stands in sharp contrast to increased support for tax benefits for the rich, big banks, the military and mega corporations. Rather than enlarge the moral imagination and critical capacities of students, too many universities are now encouraged to produce would-be hedge fund managers, depoliticized students, and modes of education that promote a “technically trained docility.”14 Increasingly pedagogy is reduced to learning reified methods, a hollow mechanistic enterprise divorced from understanding teaching as a moral and intellectual practice central to the creation of critical and engaged citizens. This reductionist notion of pedagogy works well with a funding crisis that is now used by conservatives as an ideological weapon to defund certain disciplines such as history, English, sociology, anthropology, minority studies, gender studies and language programs. While there has never been a golden age when higher education was truly liberal and democratic, the current attack on higher education by religious fundamentalists, corporate power and the apostles of neoliberal capitalism appears unprecedented in terms of both its scope and intensity.15

Universities are losing their sense of public mission, just as leadership in higher education is being stripped of any viable democratic vision. In the United States, college presidents are now called CEOs and move without apology between interlocking corporate and academic boards. With few exceptions, they are praised as fundraisers but rarely acknowledged for the quality of their ideas. It gets worse. As Adam Bessie points out, “the discourse of higher education now resembles what you might hear at a board meeting at a No. 2 pencil-factory, [with its emphasis on]: productivity, efficiency, metrics, data-driven value, [all of] which places utter, near-religious faith in this highly technical, market-based view of education [which] like all human enterprises, can (and must) be quantified and evaluated numerically, to identify the “one best way,” which can then be “scaled up,” or mass-produced across the nation, be it No. 2 pencils, appendectomies, or military drones.”16

In this new Gilded Age of money and profit, academic subjects gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market. Pharmaceutical companies determine what is researched in labs and determine whether research critical of their products should be published. Corporate gifts flood into universities making more and more demands regarding what should be taught. Boards of Trustees now hire business leaders to reform universities in the image of the marketplace. For-profit universities offer up a future image of the new model of higher education, characterized by huge salaries for management while a mere “17.4 per cent of their annual revenue spent on teaching, while 20 per cent was distributed as profit (the proportion spent on marketing [is] even higher.”17 Offering subprime degrees devoid of any sense of civic purpose, large numbers of students from many of these for-profit institutions never finish their degree programs and are saddled with enormous debts. As Stefan Collini observes, at the University of Phoenix, owned by the Apollo Group, “60 percent . . . of their students dropped out within two years, while of those who completed their courses, 21 per cent defaulted on paying back their loans within three years of finishing. [Moreover], 89 percent of Apollo’s revenue comes from federal student loans and [Apollo] spends twice as much on marketing as on teaching.”18

What happens to education when it is treated like a corporation? What are we to make of the integrity of a university when it accepts a monetary gift from powerful corporate interests or rich patrons demanding as part of the agreement the power to specify what is to be taught in a course or how a curriculum should be shaped? Some corporations and universities now believe that what is taught in a course is not an academic decision but a market consideration. In addition, many disciplines are now valued almost exclusively with how closely they align with what might be euphemistically called a business culture. One egregious example of this neoliberal approach to higher education is on full display in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott’s task force on education is attempting to implement a policy that would lower tuition for degrees friendly to corporate interests in order to “steer students toward majors that are in demand in the job market.”19 Scott’s utterly instrumental and anti-intellectual message is clear: “Give us engineers, scientists, health-care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.”20

Not only does neoliberalism undermine both civic education and public values and confuse education with training, it also wages a war on what might be called the radical imagination. For instance, thousands of students in both the United States and Canada are now saddled with debts that will profoundly impact their lives and their futures, likely forcing them away from public service jobs because the pay is too low to pay off their educational loans. Students find themselves in a world in which heightened expectations have been replaced by dashed hopes and a world of onerous debt.21 Struggling to merely survive, the debt crisis represents a massive assault on the imagination by leaving little or no room to think otherwise in order to act otherwise. David Graeber is right in insisting that the student loan crisis is part of a war on the imagination. He writes:

Student loans are destroying the imagination of youth. If there’s a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves? There goes your music. There goes your culture. . . . And in a way, this is what’s happened to our society. We’re a society that has lost the ability to incorporate the interesting, creative and eccentric people.22

Questions regarding how education might enable students to develop a keen sense of prophetic justice, utilize critical analytical skills and cultivate an ethical sensibility through which they learn to respect the rights of others are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a market-driven university in which the quality of education is so dumbed down that too few students on campus are really learning how to think critically, engage in thoughtful dialogue, push at the frontiers of their imaginations, employ historical analyses, and move beyond the dreadful instrumental, mind-numbing forms of instrumental rationality being pushed by billionaires such as Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Netflix’s Reed Hastings. In this world, ” all human problems are essentially technical in nature and can be solved through technical means.”23 As the humanities and liberal arts are downsized, privatized and commodified, higher education finds itself caught in the paradox of claiming to invest in the future of young people while offering them few intellectual, civic and moral supports.24

Higher education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead, but also to educate students to be capable of holding authority and power accountable while at the same time sustaining “the idea and hope of a public culture.”25 Though questions regarding whether the university should serve strictly public rather than private interests no longer carry the weight of forceful criticism as they did in the past, such questions are still crucial in addressing the purpose of higher education and what it might mean to imagine the university’s full participation in public life as the protector and promoter of democratic values. Toni Morrison is instructive in her comment that “If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as a guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.” 26

What needs to be understood is that higher education may be one of the few public spheres left where knowledge, values, and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope, and what my late friend Paulo Freire called, “the practice of freedom.” It may be the case that everyday life is increasingly organized around market principles; but confusing a market-determined society with democracy hollows out the legacy of higher education, whose deepest roots are philosophical, not commercial. This is a particularly important insight in a society where the free circulation of ideas is not only being replaced by mass-mediated ideas but where critical ideas are increasingly viewed or dismissed as either liberal, radical, or even seditious.

In addition, the educational force of the wider culture, dominated by the glorification of celebrity lifestyles and a hyper-consumer society, perpetuates a powerful form of mass illiteracy and manufactured idiocy, witness the support for Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachmann in American politics, if not the racist, reactionary and anti-intellectual Tea Party. This manufactured stupidity does more than depoliticize the public. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, it represents an assault on the very possibility of thinking itself. Not surprisingly, intellectuals who engage in dissent and “keep the idea and hope of a public culture alive,”27 are often dismissed as irrelevant, extremist, elitist or un-American. As a result, we now live in a world in which the politics of disimagination dominates; public discourses that bears witness to a critical and alternative sense of the world are often dismissed because they do not advance economic interests.

In a dystopian society, utopian thought becomes sterile, and paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, thinking becomes an act of utter stupidity. Anti-public intellectuals now define the larger cultural landscape, all too willing to flaunt co-option and reap the rewards of venting insults at their assigned opponents while being reduced to the status of paid servants of powerful economic interests. But the problem is not simply with the rise of a right-wing cultural apparatus dedicated to preserving the power and wealth of the rich and corporate elite. As Stuart Hall recently remarked, the state of progressive thought is also in jeopardy in that, as he puts it, “The left is in trouble. It’s not got any ideas, it’s not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore, it’s got no vision. It just takes the temperature . . . It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.”28 Of course, Hall is not suggesting the left has no ideas to speak of. He is suggesting that such ideas are removed from the larger issue of what it means to address education and the production and reception of meaningful ideas as a mode of pedagogy that is central to politics itself.

The issue of politics being educative, of recognizing that matters of pedagogy, subjectivity and consciousness are at the heart of political and moral concerns, should not be lost on academics. Nor should the relevance of education being at the heart of politics be lost on those of us concerned about inviting the public back into higher education and rethinking the purpose and meaning of higher education itself. Democracy places civic demands upon its citizens, and such demands point to the necessity of an education that is broad-based, critical and supportive of meaningful civic values, participation in self-governance and democratic leadership. Only through such a formative and critical educational culture can students learn how to become individual and social agents, rather than disengaged spectators or uncritical consumers, able both to think otherwise and to act upon civic commitments that “necessitate a reordering of basic power arrangements” fundamental to promoting the common good and producing a strong democracy. This is not a matter of imposing values on education and in our classrooms. The university and the classroom are already defined through power-laden discourses and a myriad of values that are often part of the hidden curriculum of educational politics and pedagogy. A more accurate position would be, as Toni Morrison points out, to take up our responsibility “as citizen/scholars in the university [and] to accept the consequences of our own value-redolent roles.” She continues: “Like it or not, we are paradigms of our own values, advertisements of our own ethics – especially noticeable when we presume to foster ethics-free, value-lite education.”29

Dreaming the Impossible

Reclaiming higher education as a democratic public sphere begins with the crucial recognition that education is not solely about job training and the production of ethically challenged entrepreneurial subjects, but also about matters of civic engagement, critical thinking, civic literacy and the capacity for democratic agency, action and change. It is also inextricably connected to the related issues of power, inclusion, and social responsibility.30 For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized clearly that when matters of social responsibility are removed from matters of agency and politics, democracy itself is diminished. He writes:

When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society.31

If young people are to develop a deep respect for others, a keen sense of social responsibility, as well as an informed notion of civic engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as the cultural, political and moral force that provides the knowledge, values and social relations to make such democratic practices possible. Central to such a challenge is the need to position intellectual practice “as part of an intricate web of morality, rigor and responsibility” that enables academics to speak with conviction, enter the public sphere to address important social problems, and demonstrate alternative models for bridging the gap between higher education and the broader society.32 Connective ties are crucial in that it is essential to develop intellectual practices that are collegial rather than competitive, refuse the instrumentality and privileged isolation of the academy, link critical thought to a profound impatience with the status quo, and connect human agency to the idea of social responsibility and the politics of possibility.

Increasingly, as universities are shaped by an audit culture, the call to be objective and impartial, whatever one’s intentions, can easily echo what George Orwell called the official truth or the establishment point of view. Lacking a self-consciously democratic political focus, teachers are often reduced, or reduce themselves, to the role of a technician or functionary engaged in formalistic rituals, unconcerned with the disturbing and urgent problems that confront the larger society or the consequences of one’s pedagogical practices and research undertakings. Hiding behind appeals to balance and objectivity, too many scholars refuse to recognize that being committed to something does not cancel out what C. Wright Mills once called hard thinking. Teaching needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom, to a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles and public issues.

In opposition to the instrumental model of teaching, with its conceit of political neutrality and its fetishization of measurement, I argue that academics should combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen. This requires finding ways to connect the practice of classroom teaching with important social problems and the operation of power in the larger society while providing the conditions for students to view themselves as critical agents capable of making those who exercise authority and power answerable for their actions.

Higher education cannot be decoupled from what Jacques Derrida calls a democracy to come, that is, a democracy that must always “be open to the possibility of being contested, of contesting itself, of criticizing and indefinitely improving itself.”33 Within this project of possibility and impossibility, critical pedagogy must be understood as a deliberately informed and purposeful political and moral practice, as opposed to one that is either doctrinaire, instrumentalized or both. Moreover, a critical pedagogy should also gain part of its momentum in higher education among students who will go back to the schools, churches, synagogues and workplaces to produce new ideas, concepts and critical ways of understanding the world in which young people and adults live. This is a notion of intellectual practice and responsibility that refuses the professional neutrality and privileged isolation of the academy. It also affirms a broader vision of learning that links knowledge to the power of self-definition and to the capacities of students to expand the scope of democratic freedoms, particularly those that address the crisis of education, politics, and the social as part and parcel of the crisis of democracy itself.

In order for critical pedagogy, dialogue and thought to have real effects, they must advocate that all citizens, old and young, are equally entitled, if not equally empowered, to shape the society in which they live. This is a commitment we heard articulated by the brave students who fought tuition hikes and the destruction of civil liberties and social provisions in Quebec and to a lesser degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement. If educators are to function as public intellectuals, they need to listen to young people who are producing a new language in order to talk about inequality and power relations, attempting to create alternative democratic public spaces, rethinking the very nature of politics, and asking serious questions about what democracy is and why it no longer exists in many neoliberal societies. These young people who are protesting the 1% recognize that they have been written out of the discourses of justice, equality and democracy and are not only resisting how neoliberalism has made them expendable, they are arguing for a collective future very different from the one that is on display in the current political and economic systems in which they feel trapped. These brave youth are insisting that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory, that their histories and experiences matter, and that what they say and do counts in their struggle to unlearn dominating privileges, productively reconstruct their relations with others, and transform, when necessary, the world around them.

Although there are still a number of academics such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, John Rawlston Saul, Bill McKibben, Germaine Greer and Cornel West who function as public intellectuals, they are often shut out of the mainstream media or characterized as marginal, unintelligible, and sometimes as unpatriotic figures. At the same time, many academics find themselves laboring under horrendous working conditions that either don’t allow them to write in a theoretically rigorous and accessible manner for the public because they do not have time – given the often intensive teaching demands of part-time academics and increasingly of full-time, non-tenured academics as well. Or they retreat into a kind of theoreticism in which theory becomes lifeless, detached from any larger project or the realm of worldly issues. In this instance, the notion of theory as a resource, if not theoretical rigor itself, are transformed into a badge of academic cleverness shorn of the possibility of advancing thought within the academy or reaching a larger audience outside of their academic disciplines.

Consequently, such intellectuals often exist in hermetic academic bubbles cut off from both the larger public and the important issues that impact society. To no small degree, they have been complicit in the transformation of the university into an adjunct of corporate power. Such academics run the risk of not only becoming incapable of defending higher education as a vital public sphere, but also of having any say over the conditions of their own intellectual labor. Without their intervention as public intellectuals, the university defaults on its role as a democratic public sphere willing to produce an informed public, enact and sustain a culture of questioning, and enable a critical formative culture capable of producing citizens “who are critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes society’s movement.”34

Before his untimely death, Edward Said, himself an exemplary public intellectual, urged his colleagues in the academy to confront directly those social hardships that disfigure contemporary society and pose a serious threat to the promise of democracy.35 He urged them to assume the role of public intellectuals, wakeful and mindful of their responsibilities to bear testimony to human suffering and the pedagogical possibilities at work in educating students to be autonomous, self-reflective and socially responsible. Said rejected the notion of a market-driven pedagogy that, lacking a democratic project, was steeped in the discourse of instrumental rationality and fixated on measurement. He insisted that when pedagogy is taken up as a mechanistic undertaking, it loses any understanding of what it means for students to “be thoughtful, layered, complex, critical thinker[s].”36 For Said, such methodological reification was antithetical to a pedagogy rooted in the practice of freedom and attentive to the need to construct critical agents, democratic values and modes of critical inquiry. On the contrary, he viewed it as a mode of training more suitable to creating cheerful robots and legitimating organized recklessness and legalized illegalities.

The famed economist, William Black goes so far as to argue that such stripped down pedagogies are responsible for creating what he calls criminogenic cultures, especially in business schools and economics departments at a number of Ivy League universities. An indication of this crowning disgrace can be found in the Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job, which showed how Wall Street bought off high profile economists from Harvard, Yale, MIT and Columbia University. For instance, Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, and Martin Feldstein of Harvard got huge payoffs from a number of financial firms and wrote academic papers or opinion pieces favoring deregulation, while refusing to declare that they were on the payroll of Met Life, Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.37

In opposition to such a debased view of educational engagement, Said argued for what he called a pedagogy of wakefulness. In defining and expanding on Said’s pedagogy of wakefulness, and how it shaped his important consideration of academics as public intellectuals, I begin with a passage that I think offers tremendous insight on the ethical and political force of much of his writing. This selection is taken from his memoir, Out of Place, which describes the last few months of his mother’s life in a New York hospital and the difficult time she had falling asleep because of the cancer that was ravaging her body. Recalling this traumatic and pivotal life experience, Said’s meditation moves between the existential and the insurgent, between private pain and worldly commitment, between the seductions of a “solid self” and the reality of a contradictory, questioning, restless, and at times, uneasy sense of identity. He writes:

‘Help me to sleep, Edward,’ she once said to me with a piteous trembling in her voice that I can still hear as I write. But then the disease spread into her brain – and for the last six weeks she slept all the time – my own inability to sleep may be her last legacy to me, a counter to her struggle for sleep. For me sleep is something to be gotten over as quickly as possible. I can only go to bed very late, but I am literally up at dawn. Like her I don’t possess the secret of long sleep, though unlike her I have reached the point where I do not want it. For me, sleep is death, as is any diminishment in awareness. . . . Sleeplessness for me is a cherished state to be desired at almost any cost; there is nothing for me as invigorating as immediately shedding the shadowy half-consciousness of a night’s loss than the early morning, reacquainting myself with or resuming what I might have lost completely a few hours earlier. I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach so much significance. These currents like the themes of one’s life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are ‘off’ and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.38

Said posits here an antidote to the seductions of conformity and the lure of corporate money that insures, as Irving Howe once pointed out caustically, “an honored place for the intellectuals.”39 For Said, it is a sense of being awake, displaced, caught in a combination of contradictory circumstances that suggests a pedagogy that is cosmopolitan and imaginative – a public-affirming pedagogy that demands a critical and engaged interaction with the world we live in mediated by a responsibility for challenging structures of domination and for alleviating human suffering. This is a pedagogy that addresses the needs of multiple publics. As an ethical and political practice, a public pedagogy of wakefulness rejects modes of education removed from political or social concerns, divorced from history and matters of injury and injustice. Said’s notion of a pedagogy of wakefulness includes “lifting complex ideas into the public space,” recognizing human injury inside and outside of the academy, and using theory as a form of criticism to change things.40 This is a pedagogy in which academics are neither afraid of controversy nor the willingness to make connections between private issues and broader elements of society’s problems that are otherwise hidden.

For Said, being awake becomes a central metaphor for defining the role of academics as public intellectuals, defending the university as a crucial public sphere, engaging how culture deploys power, and taking seriously the idea of human interdependence while always living on the border – one foot in and one foot out, an exile and an insider for whom home was always a form of homelessness. As a relentless border crosser, Said embraced the idea of the “traveler” as an important metaphor for engaged intellectuals. As Stephen Howe, referencing Said, points out, “It was an image which depended not on power, but on motion, on daring to go into different worlds, use different languages, and ‘understand a multiplicity of disguises, masks, and rhetorics. Travelers must suspend the claim of customary routine in order to live in new rhythms and rituals . . . the traveler crosses over, traverses territory and abandons fixed positions all the time.”41 And as a border intellectual and traveler, Said embodied the notion of always “being quite not right,” evident by his principled critique of all forms of certainties and dogmas and his refusal to be silent in the face of human suffering at home and abroad.

Being awake meant refusing the now popular sport of academic bashing or embracing a crude call for action at the expense of rigorous intellectual and theoretical work. On the contrary, it meant combining rigor and clarity, on the one hand, and civic courage and political commitment, on the other. A pedagogy of wakefulness meant using theoretical archives as resources, recognizing the worldly space of criticism as the democratic underpinning of publicness, defining critical literacy not merely as a competency, but as an act of interpretation linked to the possibility of intervention in the world. It pointed to a kind of border literacy in the plural in which people learned to read and write from multiple positions of agency; it also was indebted to the recognition forcibly stated by Hannah Arendt that “Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance.”42

I believe that Said was right in insisting that intellectuals have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense. The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to, nor a violation of, what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition. According to Said, academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view, and reminding “the audience of the moral questions that may be hidden in the clamor and din of the public debate.”43 Said also criticized those academics who retreat into a new dogmatism of the disinterested specialist that separates them “not only from the public sphere but from other professionals who don’t use the same jargon.”44 This was especially unsettling to him at a time when complex language and critical thought remained under assault in the larger society by all manner of antidemocratic and anti-intellectual forces. But there is more at stake here than a retreat into discourses that turn theory into a mechanical act of academic referencing, there is also the retreat of intellectuals from being able to defend the public values and democratic mission of higher education. Or, as Irving Howe put it, “intellectuals have, by and large, shown a painful lack of militancy in defending the rights which are a precondition of their existence.”45

The view of higher education as a democratic public sphere committed to producing young people capable and willing to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, to think of the “world” critically, “to imagine something other than their own well-being,” to serve the public good, take risks and struggle for a substantive democracy has been in a state of acute crisis for the last 30 years.46 When faculty assume, in this context, their civic responsibility to educate students to think critically, act with conviction and connect what they learn in classrooms to important social issues in the larger society, they are hounded by those who demand “measurable student outcomes,” as if deep learning breaks down into such discrete and quantifiable units. What do the liberal arts and humanities amount to if they do not teach the practice of freedom, especially at a time when training is substituted for education? Gayatri Spivak provides a context for this question with her comment: “Can one insist on the importance of training in [in higher education] in [a] time of legitimized violence?”47

In a society that remains troublingly resistant to or incapable of questioning itself, one that celebrates the consumer over the citizen and all too willingly endorses the narrow values and interests of corporate power, the importance of the university as a place of critical learning, dialogue and social justice advocacy becomes all the more imperative. Moreover, the distinctive role that faculty play in this ongoing pedagogical project of shaping the critical rationalities through which agency is defined and civic literacy and culture produced, along with support for the institutional conditions and relations of power that make them possible, must be defended as part of a broader discourse of excellence, equity, and democracy.

Higher education represents one of the most important sites over which the battle for democracy is being waged. It is the site where the promise of a better future emerges out of those visions and pedagogical practices that combine hope, agency, politics and moral responsibility as part of a broader emancipatory discourse. Academics have a distinct and unique obligation, if not political and ethical responsibility, to make learning relevant to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method, or research specialization. But more importantly, academics as engaged scholars can further the activation of knowledge, passion, values and hope in the service of forms of agency that are crucial to sustaining a democracy in which higher education plays an important civic, critical and pedagogical role.

C. Wright Mills was right in contending that higher education should be considered a “public intelligence apparatus, concerned with public issues and private troubles and with the structural trends of our time underlying them.”48 He insisted that academics in their roles as public intellectuals ought to transform personal troubles and concerns into social issues and problems open to critique, debate and reason. Matters of translation, connecting private troubles with larger systemic considerations were crucial in helping “the individual become a self-educating [person], who only then would be reasonable and free.” 49 Yet, Mills also believed, rightly, that that criticism is not the only responsibility of public intellectuals. As Archon Fung points out, they can “also join with other citizens to address social problems, aid popular movements and organizations in their efforts to advance justice, and sometimes work with governments “to construct a world that is more just and democratic.”50

Academics as public intellectuals can write for multiple audiences, expand those public spheres, especially the many sites opening up online, to address a range of important social issues. A small and inclusive list would include the relationship between the attack on the social state and the defunding of higher education. Clearly, in any democratic society, education should be viewed as a right, not an entitlement and suggests a reordering of state and federal priorities to make that happen. For instance, the military budget can be cut by two-thirds and the remaining funds can be invested in public and higher education. There is nothing utopian about this demand given the excessive nature of military power in the United States. Addressing this task demands a sustained critique of the militarization of American society and a clear analysis of the damage it has caused both at home and abroad. Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, along with a number of writers such as Andrew Bacevich, have been doing this for years, offering a treasure trove of information that could be easily accessed and used by public intellectuals in and outside of the academy. Relatedly, as Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and others have argued, there is a need for public intellectuals to become part of a broader social movement aimed at dismantling the prison-industrial complex and the punishing state, which drains billions of dollars in funds to put people in jail when such funds could be used to fund public and higher education. The punishing state is a dire threat to both public and higher education and democracy itself. It is the pillar of the authoritarian state, undermining civil liberties, criminalizing a range of social behaviors related to concrete social problems, and intensifying the legacy of Jim Crow against poor minorities of color. The American public does not need more prisons; it needs more schools.

Second, academics, artists, journalists and other cultural workers need to connect the rise of subaltern, part-time labor in both the university and the larger society with the massive inequality in wealth and income that now corrupts every aspect of American politics and society. Precarity has become a weapon to both exploit adjuncts, part-time workers, and temporary laborers and to suppress dissent by keeping them in a state of fear over losing their jobs. Insecure forms of labor increasingly produce “a feeling of passivity born of despair.”51 Multinational corporations have abandoned the social contract and any vestige of supporting the social state. They plunder labor and perpetuate the mechanizations of social death whenever they have the chance to accumulate capital. This issue is not simply about restoring a balance between labor and capital, it is about recognizing a new form of serfdom that kills the spirit as much as it depoliticizes the mind. The new authoritarians do not ride around in tanks, they have their own private jets, they fund right-wing think tanks, lobby for reactionary policies that privatize everything in sight while filling their bank accounts with massive profits. They are the embodiment of a culture of greed, cruelty and disposability.

Third, academics need to fight for the rights of students to get a free education, be given a formidable and critical education not dominated by corporate values, and to have a say in the shaping of their education and what it means to expand and deepen the practice of freedom and democracy. Young people have been left out of the discourse of democracy. They are the new disposables who lack jobs, a decent education, hope and any semblance of a future better than the one their parents inherited. They are a reminder of how finance capital has abandoned any viable vision of the future, including one that would support future generations. This is a mode of politics and capital that eats its own children and throws their fate to the vagaries of the market. If any society is in part judged by how it views and treats its children, American society by all accounts has truly failed in a colossal way and in doing so provides a glimpse of the heartlessness at the core of the new authoritarianism.

Finally, there is a need to oppose the ongoing shift in power relations between faculty and the managerial class. Too many faculty are now removed from the governing structure of higher education and as a result have been abandoned to the misery of impoverished wages, excessive classes, no health care, and few, if any, social benefits. This is shameful and is not merely an education issue but a deeply political matter, one that must address how neoliberal ideology and policy has imposed on higher education an anti-democratic governing structure that mimics the broader authoritarian forces now threatening the United States.


In conclusion, I want to return to my early reference to the global struggles being waged by many young people. I believe that while it has become more difficult to imagine a democratic future, we have entered a period in which students and disenfranchised youth all over the world are protesting neoliberalism and its instrumentalized pedagogy and politics of disposability. Refusing to remain voiceless and powerless in determining their future, these young people are organizing collectively to create the conditions for societies that refuse to use politics as an act of war and markets as the measure of democracy. And while such struggles are full of contradictions and setbacks, they have opened up a new conversation about politics, poverty, inequality, class warfare and ecological devastation. The ongoing protests in the United States, Canada, Greece and Spain make clear that this is not – indeed, cannot be – only a short-term project for reform, but a political movement that needs to intensify, accompanied by the reclaiming of public spaces, the progressive use of digital technologies, the development of public spheres, the production of new modes of education and the safeguarding of places where democratic expression, new identities and collective hope can be nurtured and mobilized.

Academics, artists, journalists, and other cultural workers can play a crucial role in putting into place the formative cultures, necessary to further such efforts through the production and circulation of the knowledge, values, identities and social relations crucial for such struggles to succeed. Writing in 1920, H.G. Wells insisted that, “History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”52 I think Wells got it right but what needs to be acknowledged is that there is more at stake here than the deep responsibilities of academics to defend academic freedom, the tenure system and faculty autonomy, however important. The real issues lie elsewhere and speak to preserving the public character of higher education and recognizing that defending it as a public sphere is essential to the very existence of critical thinking, dissent, dialogue, engaged scholarship and democracy itself. Universities should be subversive in a healthy society, they should push against the grain and give voice to the voiceless, the unmentionable and the whispers of truth that haunt the apostles of unchecked power and wealth. These may be dark times, as Hannah Arendt once warned, but they don’t have to be, and that raises serious questions about what educators are going to do within the current historical climate to make sure that they do not succumb to the authoritarian forces circling the university, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. Resistance is no longer an option, it is a necessity.

1 Audre Lord, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, Ca: The Crossing Press, 1984), p. 38.

2 I have taken this idea of linking Lourde;s notion of poetry to education from Martha Nell Smith, “The Humanities Are A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century,” Liberal Education, (Winter 2011), pp. 48-55.

3 Debra Leigh Scott, “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps,” The Homeless Adjunct Blog, (August 12, 2012).

4 Tony Judt, “I am not Pessimistic in the Very Long Run,” The Independent, (March 24, 2010).

5 Thomas Frank, “It’s a rich man’s world: How billionaire backers pick America’s candidates,” Harper’s Magazine (April 2012).

6Gerry McCarthy, “The Social Edge Interview: Zygmunt Bauman.” The Social Edge (February 2007).

7 Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

8 C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 200.

9 Frank B. Wilderson III, “Introduction: Unspeakable Ethics,” Red, White, & Black, (London, UK: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 2.

10 Stanley Aronowitz, “Against Schooling: Education and Social Class,” Against Schooling, (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), p. xii.

11 Ibid, Kate Zernike, “Making College ‘Relevant’,” P.16

12 The blog of Junct Rebellion, “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps,” The Homeless Adjunct (August 12, 2012).

13 Scott Jaschik, “Making Adjuncts Temps – Literally,” Inside Higher Ed (August 9, 2010).

14 Martha C. Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 142.

15 For a series of brilliant analysis on public education, inequality, read everything that Michael Yates writes. He is one of our national treasures.

16 Adam Bessie, “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42,” Truthout, (October 15, 2013)

17 Stefan Collini, “Sold Out,” London Review of Books 35:20-24 (October 2013). Online:

18 Ibid., Stefan Collini, “Sold Out.”

19 Lizette Alvarez, “Florida May Reduce Tuition for Select Majors,” New York Times (December 9, 2012).

20 Ibid., Lizette Alvarez, “Florida May Reduce Tuition for Select Majors.”

21 See Steve Fraser, “The Politics of Debt in America: From Debtor’s Prison to Debtor Nation,” (January 29, 2013). On the history of debt, see David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2012).

22. Alexander Reed Kelly, “David Graeber: ‘There Has Been a War on the Human Imagination‘,” Truthdig, (August 12, 2013)

23 Adam Bessie, “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42,” Truthout, (October 15, 2013).

24 Martha C. Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).

25 George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009) p. 4.

26 Toni Morrison, “How Can Values Be Taught in This University,” Michigan Quarterly Review (Spring 2001), p. 278.

27 Ibid., Scialabba.

28 Zoe Williams, “The Saturday Interview: Stuart Hall,” The Guardian (February 11, 2012)

29 Ibid., Morrison, How Can Values Be Taught in This University,” p. 276.

30 On this issue, see the brilliant essay: Susan Searls Giroux, “On the Civic Function of Intellectuals Today,” in Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, eds. Education as Civic Engagement: Toward a More Democratic Society (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), pp. ix-xvii.

31 Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Trumpet of Conscience,” in James M. Washington, ed. The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Colllins, 1991), p. 644.

32 Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (Cambridge, Ma: South End Press, 2001), p. 1

33 Giovanna Borriadori, ed., “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). P. 121.

34 Cornelius Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,” Constellations 4:1 (1997), p. 10.

35 I have used this example in other pieces, and I use it again because of its power and insight.

36 Cited in Matthew Cunningham-Cook interviews Patricia William, “Re-imagining Dissent,” Guernica Magazine, (March 1, 2013). Online:

37 This issue is taken up in great detail in Charles H. Ferguson’s, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown Press, 2012).

38 Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Vintage, 2000), pp. 294-299.

39 Irving Howe, “This Age of Conformity,” Selected Writings 1950-1990, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 27.

40 Said, Out of Place, p. 7.

41 Stephen Howe, “Edward Said: The Traveller and the Exile,” Open Democracy (October 2, 2003).

42 Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 149.

43 Edward Said, “On Defiance and Taking Positions,” Reflections On Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 504.

44 Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 70.

45 Irving Howe, “This Age of Conformity,” Selected Writings 1950-1990, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 36.

46 See, especially, Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

47 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Changing Reflexes: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” Works and Days, 55/56: Vol. 28, 2010, p. 8.

48 C. Wright Mills, “On Politics,” The Sociological Imagination, (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 181.

49 Ibid. Mills, “On Politics,” p. 186.

50 Archon Fung, “The Constructive Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Boston Review, (September 9, 2011).

51 Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), p. 20.

52 See: Braindash

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