The role of the public intellectual in a time of crisis



In his new book, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, Henry Giroux writes that, “as public intellectuals, academics can do more.” We know that, of course, but it never hurts to hear it again, especially as the crisis in American education–and, following necessarily, in American society–grows. But what does it mean to be a public intellectual? What, in other words, does one do?

Giroux suggests that our actions, in dealing directly with education, break into four areas. First, of course, we can stop writing just to each other. Second, we have to recognize that what is happening to our profession is exactly what is happening elsewhere in society. Third, we should be advocates for our students, both in cost and quality of the education they receive. And, fourth, we need to resist the growth in power of the “managerial class” now dominating higher-education administration. These are not difficult tasks in the abstract; actually managing them (especially the fourth), however, is proving almost impossible.

Writing on Tuesday, Michael Berube said:

Twice in the past, I tried to found an AAUP chapter on the campus, and both times I met with responses ranging from indifference (this won’t affect me, la la la la la) to learned helplessness (it’s pointless trying to restore shared governance, so why even try) to outright abjection (if I join an organization devoted to academic freedom, my colleagues and superiors will shun me).

We are reaching the point, however, where fear is beginning to outweigh denial, as Berube saw in faculty reactions to proposed changes in health coverage at Penn State recently. There, a new AAUP chapter was formed as part of successful resistance to the proposed new policy–but that is not going to be enough, in the long run. In this particular case, as Berube intimates, only the development of real solidarity among the parts of the faculty (including graduate students, adjuncts, other contingent hires, junior faculty, and senior faculty) is going to make a difference.

For us as individuals to step outside of our specialties, our areas of greatest comfort, is going to take more than a sense of support from our colleagues–all of them. And that will be a necessary first step. It is going to take evidence of that support, signs that others are willing to step outside, too, for that to happen. Sure, a few at the top, like Giroux and Berube, can say anything they want–but a graduate student? Until we foster an academic environment where even graduate students feel that their opinions can be voiced without cost we will never develop a strong faculty presence in the conversations of the greater community. Habits form early.

For years, we’ve been watching as American society divides into a small, gated top and an increasingly desperate mass. Until recently, we in academia (we on tenured lines, at least) have ignored that we’ve been part and parcel of the same thing. Right now, we have little authority to lecture the greater society about the 1%, for we have not tended to our own garden. It does little when we yell about how our nation is dividing into the elite and the rest when we have been facilitating that same change on campus for a generation. Berube suggests, writing specifically about health care, that “perhaps some measure of sanity can be restored to the finances of higher education if the most well-remunerated people on campus agree to absorb the rising costs of health care on behalf of their institutions’ most vulnerable and precarious employees.” That would be a start, at least. It reflects on us poorly to have tenured full professors on the picket lines outside of WalMart or McDonald’s when they benefit from exploitation (or seem to, in the eyes of the wider public) of low-level workers in their own institutions.

In New York, Louisiana, and many other states, tuition hikes at public universities have been offset by cuts in state support. In other words, students are paying more but getting the same, at best. In most cases, they are getting less. The cost of education is putting an undue burden on our students–but faculty do little but wring their hands. New loan structures aren’t the answer–that lies in developing a public understanding of the value of higher education to society as a whole. Shamefully, we have let discussions of education devolve into discussions of job training–to the detriment of our students, our institutions, and our society. We need to get back to the principles of John Dewey and of the United States of the distant past–but that’s not going to happen until we start joining with our students to advocate for them and for their education.

Though most of us know that real education lies in the discourse between students and professors and students and students, we have let the corporate “product” model creep into how our classrooms are envisioned. Student Learning Outcomes that can be enumerated have become the cry of the day–but they are simply another means for business-style management to take hold within our classrooms. They do not improve learning; they improve management, of students and teachers–and they carry with them the assumption that the teachers cannot be trusted. Only higher management deserves that. Faculty have let this happen, retreating (as Berube claims) into their own offices rather than facing the things going on around them.

Perhaps Giroux does not go far enough. Perhaps there needs to be a fifth area: faculty need to organize. The AAUP has been shrinking for generations. Yet, if ever the Association was needed, it is now. It is, however, the faculty who make the organization–it only works, in other words, when faculty have confidence in themselves, both individually and as a group. That has long been lacking. Changing that requires that each of us begin to support all of the others in our profession. Ours is not a lifeboat with room for no more but a broad beach that can provide safety for everyone struggling in the waves and undertow. And all it takes to bring everyone to safety is for those on the beach to join hands in a chain reaching out into the water.