Anthony J. Nocella II, Steven Best and Peter McLaren (Eds.)
AK Press (2010)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar
The belief higher education is about the spirit of inquiry and exploring ideas has been central to education itself for centuries. Consider where many young people first encountered great literature, thoroughgoing thinkers and spaces for political debate. Where emergent conservatism has closed off public education, universities have been one of the few places students can be involved in cultural exploration. Tragically, long-held academic traditions are withering under pressure from industry’s push into education and administrators’ quest for money.
A new book, Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex, tracks for readers a series of disturbing trends that are rendering higher education little more than a resume padder for those headed to corporate America’s cubicles.
In the book, a clutch of some of the most notorious academics, from Bill Ayers to Peter McLaren to Ward Churchill, expound on the mainstream media scandals in which they were embroiled and how little the basic idea of academic freedom meant to their (in some cases, former) employers. In other sections, Joy James, the late Howard Zinn and others delve into the mess higher education has become. It is in these dissections where Academic Repression’s editors McLaren, Steven Best and Anthony Nocella are at their most valuable as well as provocative.
Incursions by former multinational corporations’ CEOs and shifts by collegiate leadership to sell education not as a chance to grow and learn but rather as a job enhancement have fundamentally altered what universities have become. One has no shortage of schools where education is barter. Prices in the form of tuition are then weighed against potential earning power. The middle class and rich against existing resources manage such sums as part of business as usual. For the working class and poor, however, universities can serve a different purpose. For some communities, higher education can be a ticket to respect in a world where degrees are symbols of earning power.
As universities become an intellectual arms race of schooling as eminence, priorities shift substantially. Degree plans and the caliber of graduates’ placements surpass the basic question that has always been part of education: are students being pushed to think broadly about their world and closely held beliefs? Such talk of unpopular beliefs that educational icons once took on openly are now being replaced with the mainstreaming of thought, lest a donor, corporation or potential business teacher be offended with unsavory associations. High-powered Wall Street ‘instructors’ and former military-industrial complex operatives may make for prestigious rosters that theoretically, in turn, draw even more well-known professors, but the result for students are homogenized learning heavy on Corporate America and costs that effectively take some students out of the college mix. Tally these costs in with administrators’ perceived value of their schools’ diplomas and it is easy to see how college’s shift to curriculum vitae grist is affecting the historically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged.
The March 4, 2010 national student protests hint at efforts to reverse the tide, if it is not too late already. Amid news reports that students of color are being sidelined from colleges across the United States, and the fact professors branded Marxists or radicals are often speaking directly to students of color and the poor about disparities, Academic Repression comes at a crucial time.