Sunday, September 18, 2011

Unmaking the Public University

I just finished reading Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University. The blurb on the back of the book scared me a bit: "Unmaking the Public University is the story of how conservatives have maligned and restructured public universities in a campaign to end public education's democratizing influence on American society." While this accurately describes the major thrust of the book, it makes it sound like the entire book is a polemic against conservatives. While there are moments where Newfield's alignment is clear, in my moderate-liberal opinion, the book achieves its goals with academic rigor and fair argument. Rarely is there a place in the text where I felt like Newfield did not support his claims with contextualized evidence.

One of the most impressive is his chapter "Blame Academic Crowd" and the appendix "Flaws of the Liberal Bias Campaign" where Newfield takes up typical conservative reactions to academia's supposed reactions to 9/11. In the former, he criticizes the document ACTA, a brainchild of David Horowitz where "public voices" are contrasted with "campus voices." However, Newfield points out that many categories of statements are jumbled together in the "campus voices" and are furthermore decontextualized. To remedy this misrepresentation, Newfield skillfully organizes the statements into different types, which allowed us to see that only a fraction of the statements were blatantly anti-American in their essence.Newfield explains these comments as overly-emotional, comments caught up in the moment of reacting against our government's actions. However, there are several informed critiques that call for further study of contextual knowledge rather than an "attack on America." For instance (notably #75 in the list of 100):
"We need to think about what could have produced the frustrations that caused these crimes. To have that kind of hatred is a phenomenon we have to try to understand" --Director of the project on international intelligence at the Woodrow Wilson School's Center of International studies, Princeton University
ACTA tried to make it seem as though the consensus on campus was like "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote." Of course there will be reactional, emotional, and upon further reflection, inappropriate comments made in the heat of the moment, but Newfield points out that this is not the "majority" of even ACTA's own evidence! And we need to keep in mind that ACTA was a rhetorical document by conservatives meant to convince the public that Academia is anti-America or "biased."

 In his appendix, Newfield delves deeper into the "evidence" presented that Academe is merely a conduit for leftist professors to indoctrinate students. Newfield does not take this claim lightly and I would expect that he would be disturbed if one could actually show this. But by careful scholarship, he contextualizes ACTA's "evidence," showing the evidence to be "biased" itself and then moving on to interrogating the survey's questions itself. Horowitz and co. claim to be doing this in the name of freedom-of-thought and academic freedom, but they engage in biased and de-contextualized scholarship and use evidence that has not been peer reviewed. Thus, the undermine the very principles of academia.

For Newfield, all of this, is the "culture wars" at work. He writes, "[The culture wars] condemned both the content of academic cultural study and the process by which it creates knowledge of complex systems" (Newfield 262).

But one of the things I found interesting is that Newfield does not let academia/LCS totally off the hook for its demise. The 'cultural wars' were basically "internalized" into the humanities such that it gave us the illusion that we were without any sort of agency. He refers to the Americanized Foucault as part of the problem: "LCS theory of the Foucauldian period offered only weak, indirect, highly mediated agency and thus little in the way of institutional or market management" (157).

The "theory" of this period seemed to reinforce that the market was there to stay. Instead, Newfield seems to advocate an engagement with market forces so LCS could help to shape market forces. Now, I understand Newfield as not going as far as say, Mark C. Taylor, who at times in Moment of Complexity wants to give up the university's 'academic freedom' and force it to operate on a market model. But Newfield does seem to suggest that the university (in particular the LCS disciplines) would have benefited from an acquaintence with business theory:
Wherever English departments might have looked, organizations had problems with markets and were trying to refashion them. English might have noted this refashioning and learned some new moves. (152)

LCS scholars were finally more comfortable with losing to market forces than with everyday efforts to manage them. (155)

Again, I must emphasize, that I am not saying that Newfield thinks that the University should not resist market forces--indeed, his argument is precisely that the mission of the university defies market optimization logic! But, it is clear that Newfield has engaged with some key texts in business and marketing rather than merely assuming that the market is a unified entity--an incontestable entity that imposes itself on us; rather than thinking, along with Jameson, that a change would need to refute global capitalism in its entirety. Maybe this is Newfield's position too, but his readings of texts does not support such radical (post)Marxist critiques.

Indeed, one of the most impressive things about the book is how attentive Newfield is to quantitative as well as qualitative data.  In his chapter "Hiding Culture's Contribution," Newfield shows how the myth that science's research subsidizes Humanities research/existence is absolutely false. Instead, he shows that not only does scientific research cost a lot of money that does not translate directly into market profit but also that the revenue of the humanities and the "soft sciences" is actually allocated to other disciplines' research. It should be emphasized that in no way is Newfield trying to contribute to a battle between the science and the humanities, but rather that he is trying to show how the humanities (and 'cultural' disciplines) contribute to scientific research--something the public seems to have forgotten.

So: Newfield's analyses are scholarly, informed, leveled, reasoned, and supported. He makes a great argument. Now the question is: so what?

Well, luckily for us, Newfield lays out in a few guidelines:

1.) racial equality needs to be to reaffirmed as a value and as a goal. By this I do not simply mean equal opportunity--though that too is rarer than we think--but general equality of outcome among racial groups.

2.) the public university must be defined all over again as the place where maximum access is synthesized with the highest quality (see Newfield's discussion of "Meritocracy II")

3.) The university needs to be understood as engaged in forms of individual and collective development that cannot be captured in economic terms

4.) Access can coexist with quality only by restoring and increasing public funding for the public university.

5.) Public universities need to insist on the value of understanding societies beyond their status as commercial market

(Newfield, 272-274)

While these goals are easier said than done, I think that Newfield makes a great argument for them, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. I think that a major goal should be to restore the public's view of the university. This is becoming more and more difficult as a bachelor's degree seems at once "required" and completely useless in getting a job these days.

I think that the R1 institution and the liberal arts institution (universities) are important and I do think that we need to move toward a more "majoritarian" democracy. But I think that there are some things the university cannot teach that are essential for our society to function. While I do think that these jobs are generally given to a particular class and demographic of citizens, I am skeptical as to whether we can eliminate such positions and the training need for them.

I'm of the opinion we need to stop convincing every white person that their kids need to go to college or "deserve" to go to college somehow more than the underprivileged. This is a hard goal that would involve a complete change in mentality. Why must we always think about our own upward mobility rather than an entire class's or people? Can we not just stop somewhere and say "I am content." Is this not what the middle class somewhat represents to the American consciousness?

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