I somehow stumbled across this book review/article I wrote for Pedagogy in the year that it launched. I amazed at my sentence construction because it is so grad school and while the tone is clearly me I don’t even recognize this writer. Strangely, the content still all holds true.
Invasion of the Corporate Body Snatchers
The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. By Stanley Aronowitz. Boston: Beacon, 2000.
Our universities are turning into elitist bubble-gum factories where students, after four years of processing, emerge as vocationalized drones with no sense of culture or education; they are automatons waiting to be placed somewhere in the work sector, often in an area outside their field of study. The corporatizing of universities becomes more serious with each passing year and shows no sign of slowing as attention is diverted from a dedication to education to a preoccupation with the almighty endowment fund. While corporatization has been a concern for several decades, only in the last ten years has the familiar ethic of scholarship–to advance and transmit knowledge–been replaced by the commodity fetishism of the marketplace. The ivory tower has turned into a pewter skyscraper where everyone involved in higher education, from students and faculty to administrators, is a shareholder.
In The Knowledge Factory Stanley Aronowitz continues this line of criticism, sparked by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 and pursued in one form or another by Henry Giroux, Cary Nelson, Stephen Watt, Edward Said, and many others. In a sardonic, witty narrative peppered with engaging anecdotes, Aronowitz moves beyond a decades-old debate into the very nature of the American university to provide a solution for the burgeoning problem of corporatization. [End Page 151]
According to Aronowitz, once the Cold War began, the university system gave way to research-centered training hubs whose primary goal was to train students for specific jobs. Colleges were transformed into trade schools. Students, once regarded as learners, became consumers and targets of marketing schemes–customers whose preferences were to be satisfied rather than challenged. Commodity has supplanted idealism as more students have enrolled in business and technical fields, leaving the social sciences and humanities barren. Most universities fail to see this as a problem because of the increase of students in the departments that receive most of the grants and endowments from outside donors, who eagerly await the graduation of their “investments.” Aronowitz believes that their eagerness pressures faculty to keep grade point averages high and to keep the customers, on both ends, happy. Faculties are more like employees than members of communities dedicated to intellectual concerns: “Increasingly, the institutions of faculty control are losing their status and are viewed by administration as, at best, a nuisance whose utility for purposes of legitimation may have overreached its limit” (67).
While those who disagree with such changes could fight against the system, Aronowitz views resistance as futile due to the growing use of adjuncts and teaching assistants in place of assistant professors. That is, job security has overshadowed principles. Administrative and corporative power is placed above the purposes, needs, and desires of faculty and students. There is little cultivating of the critical minds of students and a lot of vocational training to gratify the interests of donors and parents. The crisis, according to Aronowitz, reflects an idealistic belief in the power of higher education as an institution that prepares people for life in the larger world. However, universities have defined “preparation” as training for specific jobs, not as universal and “wholesome” education. Bottom-line management and partnerships with corporations are given priority over the obligation to educate students, and when universities do get around to educating, the process is reduced to credentialing.
Of course, students are not the only ones who suffer; so do the faculty. Nearly half of all higher-education faculty are part-timers. Many of those lucky enough to be hired full-time are subjected to short-term contracts with no chance for tenure, so the educational workforce will be more flexible and diverse. Aronowitz’s solution? Return to the passion and desire that first drove teachers and professors to unionize in order to get the benefits they deserved. They must now become “agents of a new educational imagination” [End Page 152] who must “reverse the de facto end of mass public higher education through collective bargaining” (101).
The situation, I believe, would be less troubling if corporatization were limited to Ivy League and similar universities; however, it operates at many different universities across the country and even affects the junior colleges. These stepping-stone institutions, once devoted to raising the “academically challenged” to the higher levels of education, are adopting the bureaucracies of the elite. Students with poor GPAs or SAT scores are finding it harder to get in. Many junior colleges have gone so far in the imitation of universities that they have set up different campuses in their areas and counties and offer bachelor’s degrees. In other words, junior colleges no longer necessarily provide underprivileged or less academically inclined students with the chance to improve their skills. They are becoming as economically driven as upper-level institutions.
Aronowitz also discusses the curriculum of these “new and improved” universities: Should students spend their first two years on liberal arts courses, or should they immediately begin to specialize in order to speed their entrance into the workforce? Is the solution, as Bloom (1987) suggests, a return to the great texts of Western civilization? Or should there be smatterings of diversity, as the multiculturalists would like? The universities have chosen none of these solutions, focusing instead on building a curriculum that serves “outside” interests. The result has been a core curriculum that Aronowitz describes as the “elevation of incoherence to an educational principle, marked by the imposition of requirements that remain, in almost all cases, without intellectual justification” (127). However, he believes that much of the fault also lies with society, specifically parents, who buy into the media hype that stresses job preparedness and the needs of the employer.
The book recounts the historical changes that university systems have undergone as they have abandoned student- and education-oriented philosophies in favor of economics-oriented ones. No element of the university is safe from Aronowitz’s scathing and very entertaining critique of higher learning as he champions the “new” marginalized. He covers the commodification of students, the race to hire celebrity scholars, the exploitation of adjuncts and teaching assistants, the curricula of various departments as well as their pedagogy–or lack of it–and much more. Aronowitz provides a crucial rhetorical context for his argument but also goes beyond it to weave the threads of higher learning’s dismal history into the tapestry of a national failure.
Aronowitz’s solution is somewhat simple and idealistic, yet his vision [End Page 153] of true higher learning that puts a well-rounded education back at the center of the university’s mission is ambitious. Most critics want to go back to the “glory days” of the 1950s and 1960s, when liberal arts education thrived. By contrast, Aronowitz calls for a return to the early-nineteenth-century “true” core curriculum, along with the restoration of faculty control over academic life. The centerpiece of his plan is a detailed liberal arts curriculum: the application of four key disciplines–history, literature, science, and philosophy–to specific historical periods. While I applaud his vision of an intellectual utopia, I am not sure that he goes far enough to reform current practice. For one thing, much of what he suggests so articulately seems more apropos of a secondary-school curriculum. For another, while his curriculum would offer students more reflexivity and flexibility, implementing his model would be incredibly difficult, as his suggested changes show: “Most professors in the human and natural sciences would require considerable re-education. . . . It would probably work best if two or more instructors worked together with a large group and took responsibility for small study groups and tutorials or directed readings with individuals” (191). I doubt that many educators, if any, would be open to the idea of reeducating themselves and restructuring their own curricula when they are constantly under fire to prove their worthiness within their departments, to structure their classrooms according to “donor” suggestions, and to find the time for researching, writing, and publishing.
Aronowitz vocalizes the concerns that many of us have regarding the future of our colleges and universities. But while he provides a detailed and clever solution, there seems to be little hope of realizing it–at least not yet. Aronowitz assures us that there is a place for the market in academic life, but the market needs to be kept in its place. But how and where is the line drawn? How will it be held there? Unless a majority can be convinced that liberal arts education is fundamentally, not simply economically, valuable, the process of turning higher learning into another market sector will not slow down. Aronowitz’s book serves as both a warning and a strident call to action.