The Time of the Intellectual-Activists Has Come

The time is now for intellectuals to rise up and create spaces in which new futures can be created — without putting students in harm's way — through ourselves, and not the 1 percent.The time is now for intellectuals to rise up and create spaces in which new futures can be created — without putting students in harm’s way — through ourselves, and not the 1 percent. (Photo: Garry Waters / Getty Images)

A crucial element of change happens when people realize that the current state of things no longer works. Change is a fundamental aspect of all areas of life — growth requires change. But institutions that benefit from keeping things the same have a vested interest in resisting change. The more powerful the institution, the more it seeks to resist change. Even the threat of change is a threat to powerful economic and social institutions because change shifts perspective and imagines a different world.

There are many examples of how established institutions resist change. Take the example of religion. The Christian church in both its Protestant and Catholic variants is notorious for resisting change, in part because it claims to hold absolute truths about the meaning of life, and so the act of challenging the authority of the church is to threaten the very foundations of its monopoly on the absolute.

The more in debt a citizen becomes, the less likely they will participate in local democratic processes.

Another example is the dogmatic belief of a “free-market” economic ideology that sides with privatization of goods and services for the 1 percent, over a public and shared commons for the 99 percent. Financial institutions like banks, insurance companies and hedge funds, private corporations like mainstream media, even the European Union and the United States are institutions that have greatly benefited from this neoliberal economic ideological monopoly. The ability of these powerful institutions to resist change cannot be overstated. One basic way for institutions to maintain power is two-fold: (a) by undermining resistance, free speech and critical thinking; and (b) creating legal forms of labor coercion.

One recent such form of coercion is citizen debt. Compare the last year of Jimmy Carter’s administration, when US household debt was at 47 percent vis-à-vis GDP, versus 98 percent in 2008 at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. There’s a very simple correlation between indebtedness and the implementation of neoliberalism beginning with Ronald Reagan. The upshot is equally simple: By disciplining citizens into massive debt, students are far less likely to resist and be critical of authority. Furthermore, the more in debt a citizen becomes, the less likely they will participate in local democratic processes. The more in debt you are, the longer your work hours become, and the less time you have to participate in civic debates and actions. Said differently, the chronic indebtedness of citizens reproduces and reinforces the greatest form of institutional power in the United States that, according to author and professor David Harvey, decisively sides with corporations over the general welfare of citizens. Indeed, the power of neoliberalism is so pervasive that even the president of the Magistrates’ Union of Belgium, Manuela Cadelli argues that, “Neoliberalism is a species of fascism.”

The classroom is a microcosm of how society should function at the macro level.

From the perspective of the basic driver of society, namely the economic logic of neoliberalism, it is not difficult to observe how other social institutions have wielded and strengthened their claim on power. We can think of how politicians in Washington are fed by Wall Street and corporate interests, as Bernie Sanders pointed out in his campaign for the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. Think, too, of the National Rifle Association’s manipulation of politicians in Washington that puts society in preventable violent acts of mass killings. As a result, increased mass killings strengthen the misguided argument that local police forces need to be militarized to control the threat of mass killings, and this further jeopardizes critical peaceful resistance necessary for a healthy democracy.

To restate my claim: Power resists social change. If the rules of the game are based on a logic and practice of keeping the citizenry permanently in debt, then the less likely those citizens will be to question how social power works and work to change that.

The Toxic Higher Education Scam

I am an educator, and part of my responsibility is social — global, even. As a professor, it’s my basic responsibility to recruit, nurture and shape students in order to pass knowledge on from one generation to the next. Inherent in this responsibility is to ensure that truths are acquired, adjusted, accurate and adapted in order to empower citizens with an apparatus of critical reasoning and civic discourse. To my mind, the classroom is a microcosm of how society should function at the macro level. Years ago, while teaching at a good private liberal arts college, I noticed that students were reporting to me not only how deeply in student loan debt they were, but also how they were unable to acquire employment commensurate with their level of education. More complaints began piling up, both in frequency and in severity, to the point where, as a professor, I could no longer ignore them. This prompted me to research the root causes of a situation that, when examined, increasingly looked toxic and potentially verging on a crisis for the younger generation. Based on the extensive data I have researched on trends in higher education, I realized my students were being systematically placed into harm’s way through coercive indebtedness.

It is true: I could have continued ignoring the plight of my students’ debt and employment crisis, but if a professor takes their responsibility seriously, not only relative to the content and material they teach, but also the context within which teaching happens, as well as the negative effects of said practices, then, at a certain point, decisions and actions need to be made that address the total effects of one’s profession. And this includes the systematic, societal effects of higher education and its potential harm on students’ lives. Education isn’t just about passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, it also includes the responsibility of how the system functions. The current higher education system directly harms students by forcing them to rack up astronomical debt to banks and other financial institutions, including their own college or university. American student loan debt is now over $1.5 trillion.

The student loan and underemployment crisis in the US preys on the necessity for students to acquire an education in order to rise above poverty or maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

The younger generation, especially from the middle, working and poor classes, have always been told that if you get an education and work hard, you will climb the social ladder. But what worked well in previous generations works far less well (if at all) in today’s toxic neoliberal context; indeed today’s younger generation may be the first to earn less than their parents’ generation.

The basic problem is that students increasingly have to resort to massive student loans just to be able to access even less-expensive educational institutions, such as community colleges, and they do so without being fully aware of the dire and daunting consequences of what it means to enter into massive debt for a degree that increasingly has less economic earning power, not to mention less opportunities for employment.

If you were to honestly advise each student about the real economic consequences of how a university education actually functions with its ill effects on their own economic and employment outlook, my guess is that you would see a massive drop in student enrollments. Said differently, the student loan and underemployment crisis in the US preys on the necessity for students to acquire an education in order to rise above poverty or maintain a middle-class lifestyle. The only issue is that the consequences of getting out of poverty (or even maintaining a middle-class lifestyle) actually reproduce the very crisis itself. In light of this, professors need to seriously reflect on how their position in a toxic industry like higher education directly condones and even reproduces a grave injustice to the younger generation. The contradiction is clear: being part of the toxic, and by extension, unjust system of higher education may do more harm to students than good and it’s a question that merits serious reflection. And this is not to include the spike in tuition costs and even how a tenured position directly vitiates against the overworked and underpaid adjunct and non-tenure track professors that today make up an average of 70 percent of faculty.

Consequently, there is a moral mandate for professors to care for their students on all levels including the systemic, structural and economic level. To me, this means that professors must take a stance against the system as it currently exists because of the harm it imposes on students financially and eventually, by extension, psychologically.

This basic responsibility as an educator soon came into conflict with me being part of the system of higher education itself. I could have ignored the problem, rationalizing it by thinking I was superior and skilled enough to justify my position as an associate professor, but that reasoning is the same employed by the elite 1 percent; they are superior and thus justified. This reasoning fails, too, on the level of one’s professional responsibilities to society as a professor who professes truths in the face of powerful toxic and anti-democracy institutions. That’s our job.

As a result of confronting the toxic nature of higher education and the harm it’s inflicting on students and society as a whole, I began dialoguing with other academics and intellectuals who felt similarly. Through these conversations, which lasted a few years, what emerged was a real need for intellectuals and professors to organize an alternative teaching space that would recruit, nurture and assist students holistically, not just within the classroom, but also as human beings living in capitalism.

The result was that over 100 leading intellectuals founded the nonprofit, debt-free school, The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS). That was four years ago, and just recently, we opened a debt-free program in Ireland that offers BA, MA and Ph.D. degrees in the interdisciplinary field of social and political thought. By drawing on available technologies, we are able to bring together students and researchers from all over the world with leading visionaries, philosophers, social scientists and eco-theorists without forcing students into harm’s way through massive debt to banks. In this way, we’re able to both teach how ideas and truths can assist in the process of empowerment and liberation on the personal level, and do so in a way that keeps students out of harm’s way on a social and economic level.

The GCAS Research Institute Ireland is the first program in modern history offering debt-free interdisciplinary and applied degrees in social and political thought that was founded, organized and operated by intellectuals. It was not founded by a person in the elite wealthy class, but by hard-working, conscientious intellectuals who care about truths and how those truths are passed on into the future. We have worked with intellectuals like Lewis Gordon, Oliver Stone, Luce Irigaray, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Alain Badiou, Henry Giroux, Adrian Parr and Richard Wolff, just to name a few.

The time is now for intellectuals to rise up and create spaces in which new futures can be created — without putting students in harm’s way — through ourselves, and not the 1 percent. Let’s think new and better futures together, from the environment to healthy food, and from clean water to sustainable green energy.

Intellectuals of the world unite.