The Knowledge Factory

Schooling is the main target for a simple reason: In the United States public schools account for 50 percent of the state and local budgets and are subject to state and local laws. The federal government tries to influence education policies, but, apart from its support of charter schools (a form of privatization), its only leverage is a few billion dollars in aid, which does not go very far when spread around school systems in 50 states.

In 2010 the GOP won 23 statehouses, including Democratic strongholds such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. New Jersey fell into Republican hands in 2009. Of the major states, only New York and California resisted the tidal wave of Republican victories, although in New York the Senate passed to Republican rule. But Democratic governors — including New York's Andrew Cuomo and California's Jerry Brown — are in the thrall of large business interests as well and are attacking public employees' wages, pensions and health benefits to solve severe budget shortfalls.

Spread the Wealth

Completely off the table is any proposal to raises taxes on the rich. In New York State there are some calls for restoring the virtually extinct stock transfer tax — still on the books — which would levy a tax of one dollar for every thousand dollars of stock traded in the three major exchanges. Studies estimate that if fully implemented the tax would raise $12 billion and all but erase the state's deficit and leave a few billion dollars to boost spending on education, healthcare and the abysmally low state employee wages and benefits. (Such a tax could also curtail the “hyper-trading” that has become a new means for powerful institutional traders to profit from manipulating the markets.) The Right's strategy of abrogating decades of collective bargaining has been thrown into bold relief with GOP governors targeting public employee unions in Indiana, Idaho, Ohio and Wisconsin, among other states. Despite heroic resistance in Wisconsin and the blinding light of national publicity, Gov. Scott Walker succeeded in ramming through a bill that would not only strip public workers of nearly all bargaining rights, but also limit wage increases to the inflation rate — which has been deliberately supressed for decades because government calculations on inflation exclude many everyday commodities.

The fallout has just begun. A period of continual confrontation between public employees and rightist state legislatures seems likely. It's unclear, however, if national and local unions are up to the challenge, which demands they reverse their ingrained habits of complacency and complicity. Early indications are that they might, but only to advance the position of the Democratic Party. Wisconsin union leaders are sponsoring recall elections of state legislators and the governor and might extend this plan to other states. Still in question is whether unions will respond to the flagrant attacks on their living standards and power by employing workers' real power: the ability to withdraw their labor. This includes everything from a general strike to rolling job actions in schools, health facilities and other public agencies. This eventuality is far from certain. Labor has long ceased being a movement and has chosen, instead, to play the electoral game. Opting for the ritual of top-down electoral politics means the momentum produced by the monumental Madison, Wisconsin, demonstrations may be defused.


Thus far the attack on public education has focused on K-12. Almost unnoticed is a parallel assault on public higher education, particularly cuts in funding to state universities and community colleges. Whereas tenure track positions used to be the norm, guaranteeing academic freedom and a degree of economic security, today only about 28 percent of faculty is tenure track. The rest are relegated to part-time and temporary employment, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

This has been accompanied by ballooning class sizes in required and introductory courses. A lecture hall course with 300 students promotes rote learning and minimizes student-teacher interaction, which means many students do not graduate. In fact, since the 1980s, graduation rates in almost all state colleges and universities have plummeted, and the rate of dropouts is most severe in two-year community colleges.

In some cases, such as New Jersey, state systems have been dismantled in favor of letting schools fend for themselves. They now compete in legislatures for diminished resources, make “partnerships” with corporations that use the college to provide training for their employees, and outsource services such as food, maintenance and, increasingly, teaching. Private companies that provide these services typically employ low-wage, non-union workers with no benefits. Yet since these services are provided on a profit-making basis, claimed cost savings are often unrealized.

At a time when funding crises are supposedly permanent, college administrators have found their most effective tool is securing the right to raise tuition fees without approval of state officials or legislators. I teach at the City University of New York, the largest system of urban higher education in the country. Tuition there makes up almost 50 percent of its operating budget. If the university administration succeeds in implementing annual tuition increases, student fees will account for more than 60 percent of operating costs in less than a decade.

Pay to Learn

Tuition rises, of course, warp the character of higher learning. With student aid on the chopping block, many lower-income families and students find they can no longer afford college, so the class composition of student bodies is shifting. The promise of open admissions to community colleges (but not to four-year schools) is still formally observed, but in practice economic barriers prevent a substantial number of students from enrolling.

College administrations have undertaken major pedagogic innovations to cut costs as well. The most important is “distance learning.” Distance learning takes place by means of computer communication, facilitated by specially designed programs such as Blackboard, which makes feedback easier. From the teacher's perspective, the work is labor intensive. Students may contact their mentors any time during the night and day. Class assignments are usually delivered en masse, but mentorship is typically individual. Moreover, important benefits of face-to-face encounters are lost: visual means of evaluating whether or not students are grasping ideas; the exchange of ideas not only between teacher and student, but among students as well; and the continuation of conversations in cafeterias, hallways, bars and coffee shops.

Administrations are excited about distance learning for several reasons. Rising college enrollments mean space has become scarce. Computer-mediated classes require no rooms, electric lights or staff to maintain the space. Some students, as well, like the fact that they do not have to spend hours commuting to class. Moreover, instruction need not interfere with students’ work schedules. But at the top of the lists of benefits for the institution is saving money in a time of fiscal austerity.

Needless to say, many instructors are opposed to distance learning, and not just because of the heavier workload. They worry about who owns their labor. If a faculty member develops a new course, writes a syllabus, produces a weekly course outline and delivers a series of video or audio lectures to an online class, will s/he retain the copyright or will the institution, strapped for income, claim ownership? From the administration's point of view, owning the materials permits it to cut down on the costs of pedagogy. The lectures can be reproduced endlessly and the instructor need not be highly skilled; her main function could be to counsel students.

No More Teachers

This form of distance learning could be the first step in the teacher-less classroom. Graduate students and other less-credentialed instructors cost far less than tenured professors. The professor is no longer a teacher in the traditional sense. She has become a course planner, developer and model builder. She may be paid extra for her work, but the returns to the institution are far greater. The institution, which has already cut tenured faculty, can sharply reduce their number even further. Eventually, some argue, the college buildings may become mainly conference and entertainment centers, sites of graduate study that still require seminar space and administrative offices. But, at state schools, the virtual classroom would ultimately define public higher education. Florida is moving rapidly toward this future with its distance learning permeating even public high schools in Miami-Dade County.

The distance learning trend also favors private colleges and universities because an actual classroom becomes a prized selling point. While some do offer distance courses, particularly for “continuing education,” parents who shell out one or two hundred thousand dollars in tuition and room and board costs over four years demand that their children have direct access to “real” professors. That some private universities employ legions of graduate students and part-time faculty for introductory courses can be ignored if students are taught in actual classrooms for the upper-level, specialized education required for their majors.

With class sizes that are smaller than those of their public counterparts by half or more, private universities are widening the gap between the two systems of higher education. Many accomplished high school graduates choose private schools, and the public universities and colleges are left to address the learning deficits produced in under-funded, overcrowded public schools.

What is at stake in the devolution of a public system that teaches more than 70 percent of the 15 million U.S. students in higher education? Already, the stated public policy of achieving education equality between blacks and whites has been severely damaged by the precipitous drop in the number of black male college graduates in the previous two decades.

The gap between private and public education, the perception that a high school diploma is less relevant to the job market and the privatization of public higher education are all serious problems, but we are faced with a bigger dilemma. Is the commitment to genuine education alive and well or are we destined for the rapid evolution of a university system into a knowledge factory where the credential means everything?

The stakes of real mass education are significant. For one, a highly educated workforce may be necessary for genuine economic improvement, although the apparently intractable rate of real unemployment that has sidelined one-sixth of the US workforce raises serious questions whether an advanced capitalist economy can absorb all those willing to enter paid labor. (And as Paul Krugman just discovered 20 years after the fact, technological change rather than globalization has rendered nearly a fifth of the population's productive workers permanently redundant.) What is indisputable is the desirability of an educated population to sustain a vibrant democracy and a culture that provides a key component of the good life. Critical education helps the citizen make significant decisions on questions of international, national and local politics. It develops the capacity that average people possess for active participation in the decisions that affect their life and the lives of their country and the planet. (I am leaving aside, for now, the questions of who qualifies as a citizen, and what is meant here by a vibrant democracy and by citizenship itself.)

Ideal Community

This type of democracy is not fulfilled by the act of voting, as can be seen by a US electoral system that is largely a plebiscite on continuing the existing order. There are no active political forces contesting the rule of capital over the state as well as the economy. Should schooling at all levels, but particularly higher education, acknowledge its primary task to be assisting in the formation of a critical polity? In recent years, even the myth of critical thinking that once constituted the justification for higher education has gradually given way to the ideal that it is nothing more than higher training for the corporate capitalist order.

The second important stake in a critical program for higher education is encouraging the radical imagination. By “radical,” I mean the capacity of the people to imagine the new, to be willing and able to take the risks needed to make change rather than accommodate to a sclerotic social order. And it means developing the critical faculty to distinguish between technologies that reinforce subordination and techniques that point to freedom. Distance learning isolates the learner from the interactions needed to stimulate the imagination. It presents itself as an opportunity but, when combined with the sharp reduction of experienced, devoted teachers and cooperative learning environments in which to explore self and the world, it leads to alienation.

The ultimate stake in the current regime of counterrevolutionary educational reform is the question of what kind of society we wish to create. Budget cuts in higher education or public services are not merely temporary. They foreshadow a mean season that recalls the squalor of the 18th century. That squalor was, and remains, combined with unimagined wealth that justifies itself by its sheer power and a series of myths.

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