Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Crisis of the University in the Context of Neoapartheid: A View from Ethnic Studies

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

The Crisis of the University in the Context of Neoapartheid: A View from Ethnic Studies

Article excerpt


An often neglected consideration in reflections about the crisis of the university and the humanities today is that some of the most intractable challenges and perverse consequences that the university and the humanities face are not only due to the influence of global capitalism or neoliberalism simpliciter, but more specifically to racial neoliberalism, global coloniality, and neoapartheid. (1) Spelling out the current crisis of public education and the challenge that the humanities face today in terms of neoliberalism alone is a repetition of the same mistake that others have committed when they have aimed to articulate every problem as simply an emanation of capitalism, without seeing how capitalist exploitation is inextricably connected with multiple forms of dehumanization, many of them based on the colonial enterprises of European civilization (slavery, the modern gender system, racism, and Orientalism, among others).

This reductive understanding of the current crisis is partly rooted in theoretical perspectives that consider racialization and coloniality secondary to the power of commodification and to the expansion of the market logic and value system, and partly due to the definition of the humanities as the heart and soul of liberal university education and to their perception as useless when observed through the lenses of neoliberalism. When one departs from those premises, the disinvestment on the humanities and their consideration as useless, cosmetic, or merely optional appears as the most devastating dimension of the current crisis at the university. Lost from view is that, while the humanities and the interpretive social sciences are often devalued as fields that do not produce profit, areas such as Ethnic Studies are straightforwardly rendered illegal and perceived as dangerous (see Rodriguez 2010). Likewise, the critiques of the modern Western university and its liberal form of education that have emanated from fields such as Ethnic Studies are also ignored or left aside as unimportant or as too temporary to have any substantial value. And so, the great crisis of the age at the level of the university is presented in terms of an encounter between the liberal humanities and neoliberalism, a duality that preserves the presuppositions that keep interdisciplinary and emancipatory fields like Ethnic Studies as a temporary complement of the humanities, or as a threat. This is without a doubt one of the most disconcerting and unfortunate aspects of analyses of the crisis of the university today, and one that must be corrected not only for the sake of social and cognitive justice (Santos 2010), but also for the preservation of what is best in the humanities and other areas in the university.

Based on the previous considerations, I submit that in order to respond to the current crisis the humanities have to insist not only on how important they are for a robust democracy and for the formation of an educated citizenry, but also to:

a) take stock of how they have been complicit with neoliberalism (in terms of over-professionalization, etc.) as well as with different forms of dehumanization, segregation, and apartheid;

b) enter in a closer relationship with interdisciplinary formations that focus on the critical examination of race, gender and other markers of dehumanization and consider the possibility that a formation like "ethnic studies" could actually become a matrix for the transformation of the humanities through engagement with questions and issues that have typically remained excluded from it, as Johnella Butler (2001) aptly describes. I conceive of "ethnic studies" as a name for a particular expression of a project that precedes the formation of "ethnic studies" in the academy and that has gone with different names in different places and spaces. These different projects can be seen as part of an unfinished project of decolonization after the end of formal desegregation in the academy. …

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