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Chris Hedges speaks at the 3rd Annual Tommy Douglas Institute

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On Thursday May 21, author and activist Chris Hedges will deliver the opening keynote for The 3rd Annual Tommy Douglas Institute, Education & Activism: Rethink Resist Reclaim.

Founded by the Community Worker Program at George Brown College and featuring an impressive list of progressive speakers -- Henry Giroux, Judy Rebick, Shirley Douglas, Olivia Chow and now Hedges -- the Institute was created as a space where educational communities and wider communities could explore the ethical responsibility of higher education in neoliberal times.

Right from the start, we knew the Institute would garner interest. From quiet corners to tense staff meetings, the discussion was already happening - How do we teach students exhausted from working the night- shift, anxious about unaffordable childcare, or getting to the on-campus foodbank? Can we meet the increasing needs of individual learners even as class sizes continue to grow? How do contract faculty (now over 70 per cent)1 working insecure jobs with next to no benefits, demonstrate a "good work ethic" that can so easily drift into an exploitative one? Can we foster values of critical thinking and social concern in students who live in a world increasingly bereft of good governance and social responsibility?

Neoliberal realities were playing out in our classrooms and we needed to talk about it.

Throughout his work Hedges has provided an unstinting critique of neoliberal capitalism and its expressions through war, poverty, environmental destruction and the criminalizing of dissent and the marginalized. In Empire of Illusion he reflects on what this means for education:

It may be cost-effective to replace tenured faculty with adjuncts and whittle down or shutter departments … that do not feed vocational aspirations, but it decimates the possibility of a broad education that permits students to question the assumptions of a decaying culture, reach beyond our borders, and chart new alternatives and directions. 2

The merging of corporate agendas into public policy over the last four decades has led to a blanket neoliberalism where a profit-driven and anti-social capitalism has entrenched itself into all areas of society. While this has meant high tuition rates, disappearing job security and growing commercialization for colleges, schools and universities, most alarming is the role these institutions are recruited to play in making all of this possible.

According to Giroux, in The Terror of Neoliberalism, "higher education may be one of the few remaining sites in which students can learn about the limits of commercial values, address what it means to learn the skills of social citizenship, and work to deepen and expand the possibilities of collective agency and democratic life."3

Our educational spaces are testing grounds for our democracy. Ideas are their currency. They are the building spaces of thinking populations who must be free to subject ideas to dialogue, debate and dissent. This is where we get to ask the uncomfortable questions, mobilize diverse communities and maintain the unsettled vigilance so very necessary to a more accountable and humane democracy, while exploring all of its possibilities.

At the Institute's 2013 launch, Giroux described higher education as, "central to democracy […] in creating the formative cultures that make a democracy possible."4 Yet, this is precisely what is in jeopardy.

As 19th century schools were instrumental in promoting values of accuracy, order and stamina that served the needs of industrial capitalism, today's universities and colleges are absorbed into an ideological project meant to ease the advance of neoliberal capitalism over our democracy. The danger is that these institutions are becoming (to borrow from Colin Crouch) post-democratic structures -- Public institutions robbed of their democratic power.

However, in 2015 we see the frustrated, largely contract faculty of two major Ontario universities go on strike. As B.C. parents rally against educational budget cuts, elementary and high school teachers are in strike positions across Ontario.

And in recognition that the growing austerity and commercialization of higher education is only part of a larger (and global) neoliberalism, thousands of protesting students in Montreal join the thousands more beyond our borders mobilizing against these trends in London, the Netherlands, America, and elsewhere.

Resistance is also mounting within colleges and universities; The Tommy Douglas Institute at George Brown College being just one example.

This litany of actions is not only inspiring, but speaks to a shared belief that educational centres remain socially supported, commercially unfettered and public.

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the Community Worker Program, this year's Tommy Douglas Institute looks at 40 years of neoliberalism, its impacts on education and our responses to it. Beginning with Hedges's address Wages of Rebellion, the day continues with thematic roundtables, exhibits and a community/panel discussion on How Do We Rethink, Resist, Reclaim? Facilitators and panelists include Desmond Cole, Ausma Malik and Bill Lee. An anniversary reception will follow.

To register, visit georgebrown.ca/TommyDouglasInstitute.

Resh Budhu, Coordinator of The Tommy Douglas Institute, has spent many years working in the field of social justice in areas of gender equality, anti-racism, education and the arts. Resh has also taught for over ten years in The Community Worker Program at George Brown College. A unique program founded within rights-based practice and community activism, in 2015 The Community Worker Program proudly marks 40 years of social justice education.


1 Kevin MacKay, Report on Education in Ontario Colleges (OPSEU Communications, 2014), p. 3. http://ocufa.on.ca/assets/2014-04_CAAT-A-Report_Education_FULL.pdf

2 Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009), p. 141.

3 Henry Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy (Aurora, ON: Garamond Press, 2004), p. 139.

4 Henry Giroux, "Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times," Keynote Address for Rethinking Pedagogy in Changing Times (Community Worker Program Summer Institute, George Brown College, Toronto, May 16th, 2013).

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