Democracy's Promise and the Politics of Worldliness: Implications for Public Intellectuals

Article excerpt

In the United States, a war is not only being waged abroad, but also at home. Young people increasingly find themselves out of work, warehoused in substandard schools, or under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system; people of color are being incarcerated at alarming rates and immigrants are increasingly treated as criminals or threats to national security. However, these groups are not the only targets. Universities are accused of being soft on terrorism; dissident artists are increasingly branded as un-American because of their critiques of the Bush administration; homophobia has become the poster-ideology of the Republican Party; and a full-fledged assault on women's reproductive rights is being championed by Bush's evangelical supporters--most evident in Bush's two recent Supreme Court appointments. An incessant assault on critical thinking itself and a rising bigotry have undercut the possibility for providing a language in which vital social institutions can be defended as a public good. Moreover, as visions of social equity recede unfettered from public memory, brutality, self-interest, and greed combined with retrograde social policies make "security" and "safety" top domestic priorities. As the spaces for producing engaged citizens are either commercialized or militarized, the crushing effects of domination spread out to all aspects of society, and war increasingly becomes the primary organizing principle of politics. (1)

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Unfortunately, the university offers no escape and little resistance. Instead, the humanistic knowledge and values of academia are being excised as higher education becomes increasingly corporatized and stripped of its democratic functions. The appeal to excellence by university leadership functions as a corporate logo, hyping efficiency while denuding critical thought and scholarship of any intellectual and political substance. In the corporate university, academics are now expected to be academic entreprencurs whose value largely depends on the grant money they attract, rather than the quality of education they offer to students. (2) As the university is annexed by defense, corporate, and national security interests, critical scholarship is replaced by knowledge for either weapons research or commercial profits; just as the private intellectual now replaces the public intellectual, and the public relations intellectual supplants the engaged intellectual in the wider culture. In addition, faculty are increasingly downsized and turned into an army of part-time workers who are overworked and underpaid, just as graduate students are reduced to wage slavery as they take over many undergraduate teaching functions.

It is important to note that such attacks on higher education in the U.S. come not only from a market-based ideology that would reduce education to training and redefine schools as investment opportunities; they also come from conservative Christian organizations such as the American Family Association (AFA), as well as conservative politicians, and right-wing think tanks. These groups have also launched an insidious attack on peace studies, women's studies, Middle Eastern studies, critical pedagogy, and any field that challenges the "orthodoxy of the doctrinaire right-wingers" and is critical of the aims and policies of the Bush administration. (3) This is the same administration that alludes to gay married couples as "terrorists," while saying nothing about U.S. involvement in the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison (or any of the other secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]) or the U.S. policy of "extraordinary rendition" that allows the CIA to kidnap people and send them to authoritarian countries to be tortured. (4)

The frontal nature of such attacks against both dissent and critical education can also be seen in attempts by conservative legislators in Ohio and a number of other states to pass bills such as the Academic Bill of Rights, which argues that academics should be hired on the basis of their conservative ideology not only in order to balance out faculties dominated by left-wing professors, but also to control what conservative students are taught, allegedly immunizing them against ideas that might challenge or offend their ideological comfort zones. …