Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education

By Henry A. Giroux
Between the Lines, November 30, 2013, $17.00

Henry Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, a treatise on two concepts no one can fully agree on — neoliberalism and the university — could have just as easily had another name: The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals. Why? Because for Giroux, the clash between late capitalism and higher education has everything to do with the demise of the public, and the public intellectual emerges as the flailing hero.

What can be gleaned from this book, then, is that Giroux knows our contemporary problems: lack of funding, corporate interests, high tuition rates, massive debt, privatization of schools, austerity, professionalization over everything, union busting, precarious labour of adjuncts, depoliticization of faculty and curriculum, education as training, entrepreneurial impulses, the intensification of the police state, full-fledged class warfare, an endless et cetera.

Amidst all of this, Giroux, a professor and critic who self-identifies as a public intellectual, is his own disappearing subject. In fact, “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” is also the title of a 2012 Counterpunch article published by Giroux, of which some paragraphs (among pieces elsewhere like in Truthout‘s Public Intellectual Project) were recycled in parts of his new book.

His interest in and commitment to intellectualism has galvanized a theoretical concept that has come to be known as critical pedagogy — critical theory coupled with educational practice. Paulo Freire, often hailed as the founding father of critical pedagogy, and bell hooks, seemingly everyone’s mother, are other famed proponents.

“The right-wing war on critical literacy is part of an ongoing attempt to destroy higher education as a democratic public sphere that enables intellectuals to stand firm, take risks, imagine the otherwise and push against the grain,” Giroux writes.

What Neoliberalism does is offers a manageable written intervention on higher education in a basically unmanageable reality.

And Neoliberalism does often feel like a list of did-you-knows. Say, did you know the U.S. federal budget for military is 60 per cent whereas it’s six per cent for education?

Because of this, the introductory chapter reads as a barrage of information; statistics meant to stun you, paralyze you, then move you to action. Giroux does a good job at banging it into the ground so much so that he quotes Hannah Arendt twice to say that we live in “dark times.”

In one of the darkest chapters, written with his partner Susan Searls Giroux, Giroux tackles the 2012 Penn State scandal, where Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing several boys aged 12 and under. The two connect big money college sports with governance and abuses of power in which student athletes are more like unpaid workers. With sexual assault, hazing, racism and unresponsive administrators, college campuses, like the world itself, are in actuality places of immense violence. But if you’ve been to college, this is something you already know.

Even if this chapter offers a close reading unlike any of the other’s, on the whole, Giroux’s references, though varied and including the likes of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Stanley Aronowitz, Paul Krugman, Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida, are a little flat. He often doesn’t engage with his sources — many of them likely chosen for their commitment to Giroux’s vision of public intellectualism — for more than a sound bite. 

But, to riff off of Stuart Hall, what even is this “public” in public intellectual?

For Giroux, it seems as though one public, and perhaps the ideal space of debate, enlightenment and democracy, is education. To attempt to connect publics and expand his ode to higher education, he spouts the common refrain of “less prisons, more schools.”

But the response to bad schools can’t be more schools. And, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write in their fascinating 2013 book on today’s university, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, “perhaps more universities promote more jails.”

Giroux also advocates for more writing and speaking to a wider audience. Though he doesn’t address that most online writers are underpaid if paid at all, Giroux does talk the talk and walks the walk: he’s a prolific writer on the web, and in publishing books and academic articles.

To identify as an intellectual (especially outside of the academy), is sometimes seen as nothing more than a Twitter bio (among dog-lover, picture-taker and #feminist). Thus, what is more important is intellectual labour, a doing inside and outside of classrooms and beyond the very understanding of a class. Like when Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates crowns MSNBC host and professor Melissa Harris Perry as “America’s foremost public intellectual,” it’s easy to believe him. 

While Giroux’s focus is mostly on U.S. society, he spends a chapter on the Quebec Student Protest movement in Canada, beginning with 2012’s strike over tuition hike announcements. He envisions these as a model for Occupy Wall Street in the way that it fostered “sustained resistance” and broader mobilization. It’s in this chapter that we see that maybe intellectualism isn’t all Giroux understood it to be.

For Giroux, while he acknowledges conservative political climate on campuses and the overall disregard to student protests, young people are both fed up and the fount of social change. This feels like his strongest call to disorder. 

Though not quite, Giroux almost wavers between wanting to simultaneously defend and destroy the university — a stance which might actually get us somewhere.

If we are to believe Giroux when he writes that “schools are one of the few public spaces left where students can learn,” it would be a real shame. Still, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that do happen inside or rather, through the university, what Moten and Harney call study or even what the poet Eileen Myles said recently in Full Stop: “I kind of hate the academy as an institution… But I live off academic institutions. I read in them, I teach in them.” 

If we accept that there is a war on higher education without a refusal of some of the very basic assumptions of higher education at the same time, then the only question becomes an impossible one: what side are you on?

Tiana Reid is a writer living in New York City, where she is a graduate student at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Briarpatch Magazine, TheFeminist Wire, Hyperallergic, Maisonneuve, VICE, and more.