Higher Education without Democracy?

Article excerpt

THERE IS A GENERAL CONSENSUS AMONG ACADEMICS AROUND THE WORLD THAT higher education is in a state of crisis. Universities are now facing challenges arising from budget cuts, diminishing quality, the loss of academic community, the militarization of research, and the revamping of curricula to fit the needs of the market-all of which contradict the culture of higher education and make a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university. One consequence of these challenges is that universities and colleges have been increasingly abandoned as public spheres dedicated to deepening and expanding the possibilities for democratic commitments, values, and relations.

The worldwide crisis in higher education has crucial political, social, ethical, and spiritual consequences. At a time when market culture is aggressively colonizing everyday life and social forms increasingly lose their shape or disappear altogether, higher education has represented a reassuring permanence. Indeed, higher education has remained a slowly changing bulwark in a landscape of rapidly dissolving, critical public spheres. But higher education in the United States and elsewhere is gradually losing its civic character and commitment to public life as it aligns itself with corporate power and military values. Corporate leaders are now hired as university presidents, tenure-track professors are replaced by contract employees, students are touted as customers, and learning is increasingly defined as instrumental, while critical knowledge is relegated to the dustbin of an impoverished and underfunded liberal arts sector. Questions regarding how education might enable students to develop a keen sense of prophetic justice, promote the analytic skills necessary to hold power accountable, and provide the spiritual foundation through which students learn to respect the rights of others-and also, as Bill Moyers puts it, "claim their moral and political agency"-have become increasingly irrelevant in a market-driven and militarized university.

The calculating logic of the instrumentalized university diminishes the spiritual and political vision needed to sustain a vibrant democracy and an engaged notion of social agency. It also undermines the development of public spaces where matters of dissent, pubUc conscience, and social justice are pedagogically valued and offer protection against the growing anti-democratic tendencies that are enveloping much of the United States and many other parts of the world.

Educating young people in the spirit of a critical democracy by providing them with access to the knowledge, passion, civic capacities, and social responsibility necessary to address the problems facing the nation and the globe also means challenging the existence of rigid disciplinary boundaries, the cult of expertise or highly specialized scholarship unrelated to public life, and anti-democratic ideologies that diminish the exercise of academic freedom. Anti-democratic and anti-intellectual tendencies have intensified with the contemporary emergence of a market-based neoliberal rationality. In such a circumstance, higher education in many parts of the world is held hostage to political and economic forces that aim to convert educational institutions into corporate institutions defined by a profitoriented identity and mission.

The world of American higher education is becoming increasingly divided: Even as some institutions educate the eUte to rule the world in the twenty-first century, others are training students for low-paid positions in the capitalist world economy. It is increasingly apparent that the university in America has become a social institution that fails to address inequality in society and that contributes to a growing division between social classes. Instead of being a space for critical dialogue, analysis, and interpretation, the American university is increasingly defined as a space of consumption, where ideas are validated in instrumental terms and valued for their success in attracting outside funding while developing stronger ties to corporate powers. …