Academic journal article The Comparatist

Academe in Chains: Habitus, Reform, and the Neoliberal University

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Academe in Chains: Habitus, Reform, and the Neoliberal University

Article excerpt

University reform is slow--even when times are bad. In spite of the downward corporate spiral taken by most universities over the past twenty-five years, efforts to release the university from its neoliberal chains have been widely regarded as ineffective. The cost of education continues to rise as does the amount of debt incurred by students; academic freedom is now more than ever subject to the interests of capital while the curriculum faces increasing degrees of vocational recalibration and political scrutiny; and department closures, unreasonable job expectations, and job insecurity all may be linked back to a destructive form of managerialism that continues to hold sway over academe. (1) What then, may we ask, is impeding university reform? What is restricting resistance to these unwanted and unpleasant aspects of academe? The answer, in short, is habitus. Specifically, academic habitus.

Habitus, in its most general sense, refers to the "system of shared social dispositions and cognitive structures which generates perceptions, appreciations, and actions" (Bourdieu, Homo Academicus 279m). This shared system of social dispositions and cognitive structures tends toward reproduction, that is, it tends toward reproducing, most importantly for our purposes, in the case of academics, a "fairly stable and homogeneneous" set of "social and academic characteristics" (Bourdieu, Homo Academicus 143). This, of course, is not a problem when the academic world that is being reproduced is the object of admiration. However, it is a problem if one is not satisfied with academe's status quo--and today we are not satisfied.

One of our goals now needs to be the production of alternate and competing visions of higher education in America because the current system is outdated and broken. This begins with the generation of academics who have the ability and disposition to think differently about higher education. In order for this to occur, academics must be generated who do not necessarily share the social dispositions and cognitive structures of their predecessors and peers. That is, academics who are not simply the products of an academic system geared toward the reproduction of homogeneity, but rather are exemplars of heterogeneity and agents of difference. Elsewhere, I have referred to them as paralogical thinkers because of their negative dialogics, that is, their use of "dialogue aimed at disrupting the system, rather than bringing it into equilibrium" (Corporate Humanities 32). But this is easier said than done.

The academic system is a deeply internalized, if not unconscious, one. It is geared toward the production and reproduction of social and emotional dispositions that are fairly stable and homogeneous. It is almost as though academe has a neurosis to repeat what is familiar even if it is bad for us. Freud would call it a "repetition-compulsion" in the unconscious mind of academe. In "The 'Uncanny,'" he says that the repetition compulsion is "based upon instinctual activity and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts--[it is] a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle, lending to certain aspects of mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the tendencies of small children; a principle, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients" (391). Perhaps academe then could benefit from some psychotherapy?

The cognitive structures that shape the academic system are highly resistant to reform and change, particularly if the reform aims to not just shake, but ultimately break the system. Repetition-compulsion says that "from the moment at which a state of things that has once been attained is upset, an instinct arises to create it afresh" (Freud, "Anxiety and Instinctual Life" 106). Is this not how we react to academic change that strives to upset the apple cart? In a word, the academic system has deeply internalized protections against reform and, as such, is highly resistant to change. …

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