Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Longing for Justice in the Neoliberal University

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Longing for Justice in the Neoliberal University

Article excerpt

Longing For Justice: Higher Education and Democracy's Agenda

Jennifer S. Simpson

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014

In February 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced to the state legislature a radical rewriting of the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. Walker's revision of the Wisconsin Idea, which had been enshrined in state statute for more than a century, was to remove words that commanded the university to "search for truth" and "improve the human condition" and replace them with "meet the state's workforce needs." Public outrage was so vociferous that even the conservative super-majority of the Wisconsin legislature backed away from the proposal, and the Governor was forced to abandon his revision. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, the Governor did succeed in pushing though legislation that severely cut the University's budget, mandated a radical diminution of tenure, and severely curtailed shared governance by transferring several faculty prerogatives (e.g., curriculum decisions) to the exclusive purview of the administration (Strauss, 2015). These radical transformations are hardly unique to Wisconsin. Walker's assault on public higher education joins radical actions across the nation to reshape public higher education to meet neoliberal priorities (Carpenter, 2015; Giroux, 2012). All told they represent a juggernaut of neoliberal reforms that are truly global in their reach (Giroux, 2012, 2013; Hyatt, Shear, & Wright, 2015). Among these global trends are the devaluing of education as a public good and the push to privatize and financialize educational services. This has been most visible in the sharp decline in public spending on education and the alarming rise in student indebtedness. Educational institutions are increasingly resembling corporations in their governance and in their labor relations as faculty, staff, and students find themselves removed from information shared and decisions made. A disturbing wave of faculty dismissals without due process (see Charmichael 2012; Goldberg, 2015) shows that even tenured faculty are subordinate to autocratic management. The professed goal of educating the citizenry has been replaced by a narrow vocational discourse that imagines students as customers rather than future citizens and that conflates education with job training (Kelderman, 2015) These trends are often overtly anti-democratic or serve to weaken the democratic mission of the University. The foundations of educational purpose and practice are currently shifting beneath our feet. The purpose of universities and the meaning of education are being actively contested.

I read Jennifer Simpson's book, Longing for Justice: Higher Education and Democracy's Agenda, during this latest crisis in Wisconsin. Simpson's book examines the possibility of preparing undergraduates for lives in which they are empowered to forge a just democracy. Simpson asks how this might be done within the neoliberal university? This will likely be a frustrating read for practitioners of service-learning and civic engagement who see themselves as committed to educating for a just society. Simpson offers up a harsh critique of such work. Nonetheless, the book is fodder for some serious and necessary reflection, and I heartily recommend it to anyone concerned with the current struggles over education under neoliberalism and especially to practitioners of service-learning and civic engagement.

The book is composed of four interwoven elements: (a) foundational questions about education's purpose and outcomes; (b) stories drawn from Simpson's nearly 20 years as a college professor in the United States and Canada; (c) critiques in four successive chapters addressing service-learning, civic engagement, engaged scholarship, liberal education (to which civic education is genealogically linked), traditional epistemologies, the use of textbooks, and neoliberalism as obstacles to educating for a just democracy; and (d) the pedagogy necessary to enact the better world that we seek. …

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