Who controls higher education? Henry A. Giroux argues in his new book that academe has ceded too much power to the worlds of business and the military. In The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Paradigm), he outlines the problems he sees and calls on professors to take back direction of their campuses. Giroux is the Global Television Network Professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University, in Canada. Previously, he taught at Boston, Miami and Penn State Universities. Giroux responded recently to questions about the themes of his new book.
Scott Jaschik: You start your book with President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex. Why was academe left out and how does the warning apply to higher education?
Henry A. Giroux: Why the academy was left out of Eisenhower’s original speech is a matter of open speculation, but it has been argued that some of Eisenhower’s advisors felt that including the term in the original formulation would have unduly besmirched the sanctity of higher education. And more importantly, it would have targeted and discredited higher education at the Ivy League schools, which played a major role in educating the rich and powerful classes with the knowledge, values, and skills necessary to assume leadership in business and government. At the same time, Eisenhower clearly recognized that the arms industry, the defense establishment, and their Congressional supporters represented a combination of unwarranted power and influence whose existence presented a danger to the university in its capacity as “a fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.”
He was particularly concerned about the influence the military-industrial-academic complex would have on the autonomy of research, teaching, and a culture of learning conducive to educating an informed and critical citizenry. In light of the growing militarization and corporatization of American society, the transition in the last 30 years of the United States from a liberal-welfare state to a warfare state, it is clear that the semi-autonomous nature of higher education has been more profoundly compromised, especially with the increasing withdrawal of state and federal funding for higher education.
I began with Eisenhower’s speech in the book in order to underscore that at least historically there was a deep concern about the autonomy of the university and the necessity for it to have some remove from the influence of military and corporate power. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial-academic complex strikes me as more worrisome today than when it was delivered in 1961. While some critics might believe that higher education is a hotbed of left-wing radicalism and that college campuses are “intellectually akin to North Korea,” as the notable syndicated columnist George Will once quipped, the fact is that the greatest threat faced by higher education is its annexation by the military-industrial complex and its attack by a well funded group of right wing ideologues and foundations, the result being a fundamental change in the university’s relationship with the larger society that necessarily signals a crisis in democracy and the critical educational foundation upon which it rests.
SJ: What most concerns you about military ties to higher education?
HA: One of my most serious concerns is the transformation of higher education into a “militarized knowledge factory,” made obvious by the presence of over 150 military-educational institutions in the United States designed to train tomorrow’s officers in the strategies, values, skills, and knowledge of the warfare state but also, as the American Association of Universities points out, by the existence of hundreds of colleges and universities that conduct Pentagon-funded research, provide classes to military personnel, appropriate theory and knowledge for military purposes, and design programs specifically for future employment with various departments and agencies associated with the warfare state. After decades of underfunding, especially within the humanities, faculty are lured to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and various intelligence agencies either to procure government jobs or to apply for grants to support individual research in the service of the national security state and the U.S. government’s commitment to global military supremacy.
Military-oriented research programs and knowledge are now being funded to produce new and innovative ways to fight wars, develop sophisticated surveillance technologies, and produce new military weapons. Based on the assumption that weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death insure freedom and security, such research not only displaces compelling environmental, health, and life-sustaining challenges in the interests of military priorities but is also antithetical to fostering a culture of public disclosure, transparency, questioning, dialogue, and exchange, all of which are central to the university as a democratic public sphere. Similarly, the 16 intelligence agencies are using higher education to train potential spies or other national security operatives, often under the cloak of secrecy. In such cases, the fundamental principles of public accountability, academic freedom, and open debate are either compromised or severely endangered.
Moreover, an increasing number of colleges and universities are trying to attract Pentagon money by jumping into the market for online and off-campus programs, often altering their curricula and delivery services to attract part of the lucrative education market for military personnel. The rush to cash in on such changes has been dramatic, particularly for online, for-profit educational institutions. What I think is problematic is both the nature of these programs and the wider culture of privatization and militarization legitimated by them. With respect to the former, the incursion of the military presence in higher education furthers and deepens the ongoing privatization of education and knowledge itself. Most of the players in this market are for-profit institutions that are problematic not only for the quality of education they offer but also for their aggressive support of education less as a public good than as a private initiative and saleable commodity, defined in this case through providing a service to the military in return for a considerable profit. And as this sector of higher education grows, it will not only become more privatized but also more instrumentalized, largely defined as a credentializing factory designed to serve the needs of the military, thus falling into the trap of confusing training with a broad-based education. Catering to the educational needs of the military makes it all the more difficult to offer educational programs that would challenge militarized notions of identity, knowledge, values, ideas, social relations, and visions.
At a time when civil liberties are under attack, intelligence agencies are illegally engaged in data mining, the separation of powers is increasingly undermined by an imperial presidency, and the CIA abducts people who then “disappear” into the torture chambers of authoritarian regimes, it is all the more imperative that higher education educate students to consider the consequences of the creeping militarization of American society. In addition, military institutions radiate power in their communities and often resemble updated versions of the old company towns of nineteenth-century America — inhospitable to dissent, cultural differences, people who take risks, and any discourse that might question authority. What all of this suggests is that the sheer power of the military apparatus, further augmented by its corporate and political alliances and fueled by an enormous budget, provide the military-oriented institutions with a powerful arm-twisting ability capable of shaping research agendas, imposing military values, normalizing militarized knowledge as a fact of daily life, supporting military solutions to a range of diverse problems, and bending higher education to its will, an ominous and largely ignored disaster that is in the making in the United States.
SJ: You write critically about the corporate influence over academe. Do you believe there is a legitimate role for business to play in higher education? What would such a role look like?
HA: As someone who has an endowed chair sponsored by a corporate funder, I think it is clear that I believe that business has a constructive role to play in education. Indeed, the two have had a relationship historically. But at the same time, I think it is important to recognize that one indication of how the mentality of the market influences higher education can be seen in the currently fashionable idea of the university as a “franchise,” largely indifferent to deepening and expanding the possibilities of democratic public life and increasingly apathetic to the important role the academy can play in addressing matters of public welfare and public service. As universities adopt the ideology of the corporation and become subordinated to the needs of capital they are less concerned about how they might educate students in the ideology and practice of governance, the political importance of democratic values, and the necessity of using knowledge to address the challenges of public life, focusing instead on increasing profits and market values, identities, and social relations.
I believe that education should neither be modeled after the business world nor allow its power and influence to undermine the semi-autonomy of the higher education by inordinately reigning control and power over its faculty, curricula, and students. More important, the question is what form is the relationship between corporation and higher education going to take in the 21st century? In the best of all worlds, corporations would view higher education as much more than merely a training center for future business employees, a franchise for generating profits, or a space in which corporate culture and education merge in order to produce literate consumers. On the contrary, corporations have a far more important and socially responsible role to assume as corporate citizens in supporting higher education. That is, how might corporations use their wealth, power, and influence to expand the crucial role that universities play in promoting the public good, nurturing students to be critically engaged citizens, expanding research opportunities that address important social issues, and offering their services in connecting higher education to the new technologies.
Given the vast underfunding of the liberal arts, corporations could perform an incredible important public service by investing in the humanities with the funds, infrastructure, and technologies they need to provide a critical education to all students, while working to shift corporate priorities away from financial investments that merely educate students as consumers, workers, and soldiers. Higher education has a deeper responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead but also to educate students to make authority politically and morally accountable and to expand both academic freedom and the possibility and promise of the university as a bastion of democratic inquiry, values, and politics. I am not cynical enough to believe that the corporate sector doesn’t place some value on the capacities of its employees to think, creatively, and responsibly.
SJ: How do you think the state of academic freedom has changed since 9/11?
HA: Criticisms of the university as a stronghold of dissent have a long and inglorious history in the United States, extending from attacks in the 19th century by religious fundamentalists to anti-communist witch-hunts conducted in the 1920s, 1930s, and again in the 1950s, during the infamous era of McCarthyism. Harkening back to the infamous McCarthy era, a newly reinvigorated war is currently being waged by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives, and corporate fundamentalists against the autonomy and integrity of all those independent institutions that foster social responsibility, critical thought, and critical citizenship.
While the attack is being waged on numerous fronts, the universities are where the major skirmishes are taking place. What is unique about this attack on academic freedom are the range and scope of the forces waging an assault on higher education. It is much worse today, because corporations, the national security state, the Pentagon, powerful Christian evangelical groups, non-government agencies, and enormously wealthy right-wing individuals and institutions have created powerful alliances — the perfect storm so to speak — that are truly threatening the freedoms and semi-autonomy of American universities. Higher education in the United States is currently being targeted by a diverse number of right-wing forces that have assumed political power and are waging an aggressive and focused campaign against the principles of academic freedom, sacrificing critical pedagogical practice in the name of patriotic correctness and dismantling the ideal of the university as a bastion of independent thought, and uncorrupted inquiry. Ironically, it is through the vocabulary of individual rights, academic freedom, balance, and tolerance that these forces are attempting to slander, even vilify, an allegedly liberal and left-oriented professoriate, to cut already meager federal funding for higher education, to eliminate tenure, and to place control of what is taught and said in classrooms under legislative oversight.
There is more at work in the current attack than the rampant anti-intellectualism and paranoid style of American politics outlined in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, written over 40 years ago. There is also the collective power of radical right-wing organizations, which in their powerful influence on all levels of government in spite of a democratically controlled Congress and most liberal social institutions feel compelled to dismantle the open, questioning cultures of the academy. Underlying recent attacks on the university is an attempt not merely to counter dissent but to destroy it and in doing so to eliminate all of those remaining public spaces, spheres, and institutions that nourish and sustain a culture of questioning so vital to a democratic civil society. Dissent is often equated with treason; the university is portrayed as the weak link in the war on terror by powerful educational agencies; professors who advocate a culture of questioning and critical engagement run the risk of having their names posted on Internet web sites while being labeled as un-American; and various right-wing individuals and politicians increasingly attempt to pass legislation that renders critical analysis a liability and reinforces, with no irony intended, a rabid anti-intellectualism under the call for balance and intellectual diversity. Genuine politics begins to disappear as people methodically lose those freedoms and rights that enable them to speak, act, dissent, and exercise both their individual right to resistance and a shared sense of collective responsibility.
While higher education is only one site, it is one of the most crucial institutional and political spaces where democratic subjects can be shaped, democratic relations can be experienced, and anti-democratic forms of power can be identified and critically engaged. It is also one of the few spaces left where young people can think critically about the knowledge they gain, learn values that refuse to reduce the obligations of citizenship to either consumerism or the dictates of the national security state, and develop the language and skills necessary to defend those institutions and social relations that are vital to a substantive democracy. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt insisted, a meaningful conception of politics appears only when concrete spaces exist for people to come together to talk, think critically, and act on their capacities for empathy, judgment, and social responsibility. What the current attack on higher education threatens is a notion of the academy that is faithful to its role as a crucial democratic public sphere, one that offers a space both to resist the “dark times” in which we now live and to embrace the possibility of a future forged in the civic struggles requisite for a viable democracy.
SJ: In your conclusion, you talk about strategies to “retake the university.” Can you describe them?
HA: It is worth noting that my reference to “retaking the university” should not be confused with the idea of taking over the university, a more militaristic and overly determined political concept that I want to avoid altogether. “Retaking the university” is not a call for any one ideology on the political spectrum to “take over” the university. But at the same time, it does suggest the need for educators and others to take a stand about the purpose and meaning of higher education and the latter’s crucial role in educating students to participate in an inclusive democracy. “Retaking the university” is an ethical referent and a call to action for educators, parents, students, and others to reclaim higher education as a democratic public sphere, a place where teaching is not confused with either training, militarism, or propaganda, a safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue, and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students.
Higher education, in this reading, becomes a site of ongoing struggle to preserve and extend the conditions in which autonomy of judgment and freedom of action are informed by the democratic imperatives of equality, liberty, and justice. Higher education has always, though in damaged forms, served as a symbolic and concrete reminder that the struggle for democracy is, in part, an attempt to liberate humanity from the blind obedience to authority and that individual and social agency gain meaning primarily through the freedoms guaranteed by the public sphere, freedoms in which the autonomy of individuals only becomes meaningful under those conditions that likewise insure the workings of an autonomous society. The call to “retake the university,” then, is a reminder that the educational conditions that make democratic identities, values, and politics possible and effective have to be fought for more urgently at a time when democratic public spheres, public goods, and public spaces are under attack by a number of fundamentalisms that share the common dominator of disabling a substantive notion of democratic ethics and politics.
More specifically, I am calling for strategies to reclaim those modes of governance, teaching, scholarship, and service that both recognize the promise of the university as a bastion of democracy and are critical of the anti-democratic forces now working to instrumentalize, commodify, and militarize it. We are witnessing a dangerous confluence of higher education, the military, and corporate power. The ongoing vocationalization of higher education, the commodification of the curriculum, the increasing connection between the military and universities through joint research projects and Pentagon scholarships, and the transformation of students into consumers have undermined colleges and universities in their efforts to offer students the knowledge and skills they need for learning how to govern as well as develop the capacities necessary for deliberation, reasoned arguments, and the obligations of civic responsibility. For these forces to be challenged by existing and future generations, higher education should provide the modes of critical education and pedagogy that expose students to a genuine intellectual culture, one that is equally pleasurable, stimulating, and empowering.
At the very least, such higher education should not only provide students with a broad general education but also equip them with the habits of critical thought and a passion for social responsibility that enables them to take seriously their participation in public life. What has become clear is that the deeply rooted incursion of corporate values, right-wing ideological politics, and military culture into university life undermines the university’s obligation to provide students with an education that allows them to take seriously John Dewey’s insistence that “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife.” The call for strategies to retake higher education also argues for making higher education available to all people, regardless of wealth and privilege. Higher education has to be democratized and cannot be tuition-driven, which reinforces differential opportunities for students based on their ability to pay.
I also argue that within the universities and colleges today, power is top-heavy, largely controlled by trustees and administrators and removed from those who actually do the work of the university — namely, the faculty, staff, and students. Much needed reforms include protecting the jobs of full-time faculty, turning adjunct jobs into full-time positions, expanding benefits to part-time workers, and putting power into the hands of faculty and students. Protecting the jobs of full-time faculty means ensuring that this right to academic freedom, are paid a decent wage, and have a significant role in governing the university. A weak faculty translates into a faculty without rights or power, one that is governed by fear rather than by shared responsibilities and is susceptible to labor-bashing tactics such as increased workloads, contract labor, and the suppression of dissent. Adjunct or part-time educators must be given the opportunity to break the cycle of exploitative labor and, within a short period of time, be considered for full-time positions with full benefits and the power to influence governance policies. If the university is to emphasize a discourse of enlightenment, ethics, vision, and democratic politics over the language of militarization, political orthodoxy, and market fundamentalism, it is crucial that higher education honor its students by not only providing them with crucial skills and knowledge but also giving them the opportunity to appropriate and exercise a language of critique and possibility as part of a broader effort to connect what they learn in the classroom to the larger world and the promise of an inclusive and substantive democracy. Higher education should be a place where imagining the unimaginable matters as part of an effort not only to get students to think otherwise but also to act otherwise in the service of taking the promise of democracy seriously. This is why taking back the university is so crucial.
SJ: Your arguments are likely to resonate with readers on the left. What would be your approach to getting someone who doesn’t share your politics on why he or she should take the ideas in your book seriously?
HA: I think there are a few issues that might characterize such an approach. First, it is crucial to be as persuasive as possible in getting others to recognize that education is crucial to the renewal and extension of democratic life — but also the sustainability of the planet. Corporatism and militarism don’t just infringe on the pursuit of higher learning, they have also produced irreparable damage to the environment as well as considerable risk to health, global peace, notions of democratic transparency, accountability, equality and the public good. We need critical debate, dialogue, and exchange about these issues, and, hopefully, The University in Chains will promote such an engagement among a wide variety of groups. At the same time, such exchanges are being jeopardized by the current widespread politics of certainty, fundamentalism, patriotic correctness, national chauvinism, fear, and dogmatism.
Second, I would hope that the book, given its concern with the relationship between democracy and education, serves as an invitation to engage in self-reflection and dialogue rather than to close down such vital democratic practices. Third, one has to have some faith in the power of reason, argument, and evidence as well as in the importance of critical engagement and persuasion to believe that people will approach the book not as an act of bad faith but as a sincere attempt to engage others who have quite different ideological and political views. Far from being a manifesto, I am hoping this book serves as both a warning and an invitation to think more deeply about not only the crisis of higher education but also the crisis of democracy itself, including, most importantly, what it might mean to transform such a crisis into renewed hope and action for a more democratic future.