The Ideology of Repudiation in Higher Education

By Folks, Jeffrey | Modern Age, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Ideology of Repudiation in Higher Education

Folks, Jeffrey, Modern Age

IN ALIEN POWERS: The Pure Theory of Ideology, Kenneth Minogue provides a compelling account of the manner in which ideology has come to pervade our culture. Pioneered by Marx in his grand fiction of economic determinism, the "pure theory of ideology" focused unrelentingly on the "underlying consequences" of human behavior, such as the material effects of what Marx termed "superstructure." By its very nature, modern ideological thinking assumes the existence of vast conspiracies, right-wing or otherwise, which it takes as its mission to unmask and defeat. Since the time of Marx, this paradigm of ideological criticism of the status quo and of opposition to authority in all its forms has spread rapidly beyond economics into the general consciousness of the West, and beyond that to numerous Third World liberation movements. One of the key aspects of this "pure" or totalizing ideology is the tendency to view existence in abstract and oppositional terms, and, in doing so, it has introduced a dangerous bias against cultural traditions and established institutions.

At its core, the pure theory of ideology reflects a restless and inhuman instinct for perfectibility and absolute control. Unfortunately, the only way to achieve this radical purpose is through a ruthless suppression of the mores and values of society as we have known it in the past. Many crucial elements within contemporary politics--a reflexive opposition to all forms of authority, the reductive tendency to suspect the professed virtue of public figures, an ahistorical and overgeneralized simplification of human affairs to the level of a few radical ideas, an impatience with an imperfect world, and an attempt to bring about solutions through authoritarian programs of bureaucratic control--can be attributed to the proliferation of a totalizing ideological consciousness. This program of ideological criticism has its own long history within our culture extending back to the Romantic interrogation of the impact of science and technology on Western civilization and beyond that to the philosophical skepticism of Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, for it was Spinoza and Descartes (and afterwards Rousseau and Nietzsche) who were the major precursors of the deeply misguided idea that education amounted primarily to a "negative" liberation from previous teachings and influences.

Anyone wishing to explore the philosophical origins of the ideological crisis in modern education need look no further than Spinoza's Ethics. In this revolutionary work, all possibility of a higher order of purpose and transcendent authority has been ruthlessly excluded. The anarchic implications of the philosophical counter-tradition continue to be worked out in the social and political spheres of modern society and have an especially powerful effect on the conception of childrearing and education. The modern theory of education as a form of self-discovery--indeed, the understanding of the child as a privileged category of humankind, a creature not to be tampered with by pedantic rules or warped by parental correction--is deducible from Spinoza's deification of human reason and his assault on classical-Christian tradition with its "belittlement," as he saw it, of the human capacity for knowing and controlling the world in all its facets. The emphasis on liberation that Spinoza unleashed now manifests itself in the widespread assumption that every student must set forth on a journey not merely of self-discovery but of self-creation, one that entails a thorough rejection of all inherited values, beliefs, and traditions.

The influence of modern ideology is nowhere more evident than within American higher education. The oppositional temper permeates nearly every department in the humanities and social sciences, as does the radical mind-set that views the academic life as an "intervention" in a failed capitalist system. The conventional restraint of scholarship grounded in a tradition of circumspection and common sense, what Minogue refers to as the ability to "critique the criticism," is all but lost in the American academic setting. …

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