Published: Jan. 10, 2002 By

(part of a series in Issue 35: Masculinity and Labor Under Capitalism – Edited by DONALD MORTON)

“The research university is structured like a nuclear family: the scientists are the dads, and they go out and make the money, and the humanists are the moms, and they stay home and take care of the kids.”

— Dominick LaCapra (qtd in Newfield, 312)

[1]   Though this division of labor is now generally taken for granted, it reverses the status relationship between the sciences and humanities as it was first established in the nineteenth-century German university. In The Conflict of the Faculties Kant identified “reason” as the founding principle of the modern university. Reason, for Kant, resided not in the “higher” faculties of law, religion or medicine (professions which the state had a direct interest in regulating) but in the “lower” faculty of philosophy, which, he explained, “is called lower because it may use its own judgment about what it teaches” (Kant 29). As Bill Readings has pointed out in The University in Ruins, Humboldt’s vision for the University of Berlin interpreted “reason” as an ordering of knowledge that could be achieved through the process of Bildung–the development in the individual student of the formal arts of judgment, or critique–that would at the same time produce a “national” culture (Readings, 64-7). Hence, the modern notion of culture and the modern nation state were developed in conjunction with each other; the modern university was designed to produce and distribute the “national” culture that the nation-state depends upon. This, to continue the family analogy, was “man’s work,” and the humanities professor was, symbolically, the central figure of the university.

[2]   During the Cold War expansion of military-based research in the U.S., the sciences displaced the humanities in the academic prestige hierarchy. True to Kant’s vision, the humanities remained free from practical considerations and state regulation. The humanities have been the locus of academic freedom, though this particular freedom has made the humanities increasingly irrelevant to the redefined mission of the post-war academy. Now, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, funding for “pure” scientific research is drying up, and more funding for “applied” research is coming directly from corporations. The humanities are under pressure to become skills training programs, focused more or less directly on fulfilling employer demands for well-trained knowledge workers. This shift is directly related to globalization; the civic mandate of acculturation in support of the nation-state is being abandoned to serve the needs of transnational corporations. In this “corporate university” a new “man” on campus has emerged. He is neither the humanist nor the scientist, but the administrator.

[3]   Of course, representing institutional power relations in these gender-coded terms obscures the class struggle over access to higher education, and, in particular, access to the kind of broad, critical humanities education that prepares citizens for active participation in a democratic society. During the “culture wars” of the 1990s humanities education was contested around issues of gender and race from both the right and the left. “Class” was often invoked as the third term of the “political correctness” triad, but class was much more rarely the subject of public debates. This inattention to class–effectively a blindness to the social division of labor–is both a symptom and an enabling condition of the academy’s role in maintaining capitalist relations of production in changing historical circumstances. In this essay I will argue that the way masculinity is constructed by the academic division of labor is inseparable from the role of higher education as an instrument of class rule and social control. Neither the essentialist notion of gender taken for granted in the modern university nor the dominant postmodern theory of gender as performative or discourse-based is adequate for explaining and resisting the current threat to the humanities–and to academic freedom–in the emerging corporate-university system. I turn, instead, to a materialist conception of gender in which, as Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology, gender, like consciousness itself, is a product of human labor and the gender hierarchy is a product of the unequal division of labor and distribution of resources. The categories “masculine” and “feminine” are produced and reproduced, taking on different characteristics in different historical circumstances according to changing relations of production. Historical materialism supports a critique of the ideology of gender in academic power relations that also recognizes the ways that the academic division of labor facilitates the profit motive and maintains class rule.

[4]   The larger purpose of this essay, however, is to argue that we need to reclaim the humanities as a site in which historical materialism can be taught and as a site for what Teresa Ebert calls “critique-al” intervention against the corporatization of American higher education. That is, progressive educators should not cede the humanities as a space for critique, notwithstanding the legitimate feminist and anti-racist critiques of the traditional humanities. The “critique-al” humanities, as described by Ebert, involve pedagogical practices that “aim at educating citizens for an inclusive democracy with equal social and economic access for all” and “practices that question the priority of ‘profit’ in contemporary society” (Ebert 1996b, 1). Traditional humanities education is necessary but not sufficient to produce critique-al intervention. We also need to extend the practice of critique as an interrogation of the dominant mode of reason, which takes for granted the division of labor and the profit motive, and which increasingly defines democracy in terms of consumer choice. Historical materialist critique should therefore be distinguished from the conventional academic practice of “critical thinking” as a value-free heuristic strategy and from discourse-based ideology critique that neglects the structural factors determining social relations. Critique-al humanities education can interrogate the dominant mode of reason as it functions ideologically and structurally to promote the interests of the corporate sector, often in direct contradiction to the interests of students.

[5]   I use the term “corporate-university system” in addition to the more common “corporate university” in order to emphasize that the American system of higher education is multi-faceted and hierarchically structured. Most accounts of the crisis of the humanities assume that a few prestigious institutions set the standards by which hundreds of other universities are judged, and that the much larger group of “second-tier” comprehensive public universities perform the same mission defined by the elite institutions, only achieving inferior results. However, as I will argue below, in order to understand and to explain the role of the humanities in U.S. society it is necessary to recognize that different universities are situated differently in the relations of production of contemporary U. S. capitalism. A significantly broadened access to critical humanities education was glimpsed during the expansion of higher education in the 1960s, and it has been the object of an ongoing class struggle ever since. Under pressure for a more narrowly defined vocational mission in comprehensive public universities this promise has been steadily retrenched since the 1970s. Meanwhile, the ostensibly progressive changes brought about by identity politics and postmodern theory have occurred primarily in the realm of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” This focus is problematic because cultural capital is not commensurate with economic capital, but also because it generally neglects the material relations of production even of the cultural capital itself. That is, the attention to the content of cultural capital insidiously detracts attention from the fact that access to any kind of cultural capital (revolutionary or reactionary) is severely limited below the level of the elite university. Thus, the effort has mainly succeeded in adjusting the academy to the labor needs of a new flexible capitalism. In this so-called “post-industrial” economy the United States and other industrialized nations have built an expanded work-force (including many more women) of information-processors and technicians to manage a regime of hyper-exploitation in which production costs are driven down by the use of sweatshops and offshore factories with substandard wages, workplace safety and environmental protections. Meanwhile, conservative policy-makers are invoking a neo-patriarchal construction of gender in attempts to force second-tier universities to adopt more vocationally-oriented curricula. To combat this situation, progressive educators need to reclaim the historical foundation of the humanities as an oppositional space of critique, a space in the academy not directly focused on developing students’ vocational skills and indoctrinating students into the ideology of consumerism.

The Decline of White Male Bildung

[6]   Among the many recent analyses of the corporate university Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins is notable for its attempt to situate the crisis of the humanities in relation to the conditions of transnational capitalism. Following Humboldt, Readings identifies two founding concepts of the modern university–culture and critique. The German Idealists imagined the university as a microcosm of the national community in which individuals’ relationships to each other are mediated by the abstract idea of the state. This model of community fosters an illusory sense of individual singularity or difference; though the subject is addressed as an individual member of the community, community is only possible insofar as each individual is similarly constructed as a civil subject. Thus, the concept of community in modernity was inherently universalizing, Readings concludes, “in that it was based on the implicit assumption of a shared human capacity for communication” (182). While nothing guarantees that this capacity will exist, the concept of culture is the locus of community-formation in modern society:

Culture claims that it can provide such a guarantee in that it is both the object of communication and the process of communication (something that is produced in communicative interaction). Culture, in short, is both Wissenschaft (what we talk about) and Bildung (the very act of our talking together). The University of Culture’s ideological function in modernity is, then, to pretend to be the institution that is not an institution at all, but simply the structure you get if transparent communication is possible. The University, that is, is presumed to institutionalize the very principle that renders possible the functioning of institutions as bearers of the social bond. (183)

In postmodernity the university’s mission has shifted from guaranteeing the social bond to a new mission of developing “human resources” for the marketplace. “The University no longer has to safeguard and propagate national culture,” according to Readings, “because the nation-state is no longer the major site at which capital reproduces itself” (13).

[7]   “Critique,” in the modern university as described by Readings, is a rational-idealist rather than a historical materialist practice. It presumes communication, and therefore depends upon an assumption of universalized national community that cannot be maintained in the current moment of transnational capitalism, in which corporations that can move their operations easily around the globe are undermining the power of the nation-state. Consequently, the function of critique that was operative in the modern “University of Culture” is becoming irrelevant in the postmodern “University of Excellence”–Readings’ term for the corporate university. “Excellence” is a dereferentialized concept that enables administrators to define the university’s mission in terms of purely instrumental efficiency. Invoking this empty notion of “excellence” as the measure of success, administrators are redefining universities as quasi-corporations whose goal is to satisfy “consumers” (students, and corporate employers). In the University of Excellence the content of research and teaching no longer matters as long as the “product” sells:

The critique of culture depends on the assumption that culture is organized in terms of truth and falsehood rather than in terms of successful or unsuccessful performance. What is more, critique depends on the idea that there is a quasi-religious belief in the icons of culture, and it loses its force once the system is prepared to make any cultural icon the site of economic profit. . . . Rather than posing a threat, the analyses performed by Cultural Studies risk providing new marketing opportunities for the system. Practices such as punk music and dress styles are offered their self-consciousness in academic essays, but the dignity they acquire is not that of authenticity but of marketability. (121)

What formerly gave the university its meaning, then, is rapidly being abandoned because the old coordinates are no longer functional. Transnational corporations have replaced the nation-state as the university’s counterpart/client and political agency has been re-defined in market terms. In a society that has dropped all pretense of ideology as false consciousness, a society in which consumerism has replaced democracy as a social ideal, ideology critique itself can be appropriated for the marketplace.

[8]   In the “University of Culture” there was something called “the adventure of a liberal education” which had heroes–a “student hero” at its beginning and a “professor hero” at its end (7). Now, Readings observes, “no one of us can seriously imagine him or herself as the hero of the University, as the instantiation of the cultivated intellectual that the entire great machine works night and day to produce” (9). The beginning of the end of this narrative can be seen in Jacques Barzun’s The American University: How it Runs, Where it is Going, first published in 1968 and re-published by the University of Chicago Press in 1993. Readings finds two striking features of Barzun’s text. First, although the book was originally published shortly after the student revolts at Columbia (Barzun’s institution), Barzun pointedly declines to address the issues raised by the students. Readings remarks that this paradox can be explained by the fact that Barzun is engaged in the project to construct a new hero of the university–neither student nor faculty as hero but instead the enlightened and liberal administrator as hero (8). In a text that is heralded as a defense of the traditional academy, the corporate university is anticipated. Second, while Barzun is cited with approval by contemporary opponents of feminism and multiculturalism, Readings points out that the tone of Barzun’s text is remarkably different from that of recent conservative laments for the “University of Culture.” Barzun writes in a tone of “mellifluent pomposity consequent upon entire self-satisfaction.” In texts like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Herbert London’s introduction to the 1993 edition of Barzun’s book, this tone has been replaced by “vitriolic complaint,” particularly in the expression of a common strain of sexism:

Where Barzun remarks vaguely that women can indeed fulfill secretarial roles adequately in the University and perhaps even pursue graduate studies as a way of preparing themselves to bear the children of their male counterparts, Bloom and London see their University threatened by raving harpies. Where Barzun sees silliness and calls it “preposterism,” London sees “contamination.” (9)

“What marks the tone of contemporary diatribes,” Readings concludes, “is that the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning, subject is no longer readily available to us”(9). The subject of this grand narrative was, of course, a white male. In modernity the “male WASP constructs himself as unmarked by signs of difference” and “makes such blankness the condition of entry to the public sphere,” Readings observes, but in postmodernity “there is no longer a general subject of culture; there are merely peripheral singularities within a unipolar system.” With the disappearance of the universal male subject of modernity intervention becomes problematic because “the cultural metaphor for individual participation offered by the nation state cannot simply be expanded to fit a global society, which does not amount to a worldwide nation state” (141).

[9]   In postmodern society the ideology of individualism is supported by a mass appeal that is distinctively different from the unified appeal of modernity. Now, Readings observes, the individual “is simultaneously addressed as a member of the massand as a minority”; the “majoritarian” generality of the modern public sphere is bracketed in favor of the marketing techniques of demographic narrowcasting that aggregate individuals temporarily in one or another group. Through narrowcasting “each individual is positioned as a consumer without memory, a gaping mouth, as it were, rather than the subject of a narrative of self-realization” (143). Developing this idea in the context of the crisis of the humanities, Readings proposes May 1968 as the moment of gendering and racializing the student body–that is, the moment at which the student “body” becomes differentiated sexually and racially rather than unified in a narrative of white maleBildung. In the following passage he is speaking specifically about the student revolts in Paris, but also making a parallel argument about U.S. students:

1968 marks the entry of the student body into the sphere of the University, an entry that meant the University could no longer be understood in terms of the story of an individual subject’s passage through it. . . . The questions of gender, class and ethnic difference among the students were all repeatedly and urgently part of the student program. . . . Understanding 1968 requires recognizing how events broke with a certain narrative of the University education as the individual experience of emancipation in the passage of a virtual student from ignorance to knowledge, from dependence to autonomy and competence. 1968 broke with that narrative precisely insofar as the students were revolting as students, not as would-be professors. (Readings 144)

[10]   After 1968, then, the “University of Culture,” in which the student could imagine “himself” as the hero of the institution was rendered obsolete. Meanwhile, in the “University of Excellence”–the elite university as corporate university–the logic of consumerism undermines the potential for students to engage in revolutionary political critique because there is a convergence between consumerism and identity politics. Both discourses are predicated on a logic of “lifestyle choices.” The students’ rejection of the narrative ofBildung in the name of an “uncertainty about maturity, about labor, about wealth, about class, about gender,” Readings asserts, goes along with a radical pragmatism and a refusal of vanguardism. By refusing to think of themselves as would-be professors, the students were refusing, in effect, to be “students” in the traditional sense. They were refusing the traditional intellectual project, or, at least, they were refusing the traditional link between cultural Bildung and critique. For Readings all of these shifts–the disintegration of the nation-state, the disappearance of the bourgeois public sphere, and the irrelevance of a concept of the unified subject of Bildung in the corporate university–present an insurmountable challenge. His response is pragmatic; taking the “dereferentialization” of knowledge as inevitable, he proposes the university as a “community of dissensus” whose members would share a common, quasi-religious commitment to “thought” as an abstract principle (176). Where this would lead is uncertain, but members of the community would just have to live with that uncertainty. “The task we have before us,” he writes, “is understanding the contemporary University without falling either into nostalgia for national culture or the discourse of consumerism” (149).

[11]   I have devoted so much space to this discussion of Readings’ book because it offers a cogent analysis of the humanities’ shift from patriarchal nationalism in the modern university to identity-politics-based consumerism in the postmodern university. But in order to understand the function of the university in contemporary society it will be necessary to look at something that Readings largely ignores: higher education’s role in producing and maintaining the social division of labor. And it will be necessary to define the “academy” much more broadly than he does, to include the second-tier (comprehensive public) institutions. In his concern to address “the idea of the university” Readings overlooks the fact that the vast majority of U.S. college students–those in comprehensive public universities, not to mention those in community colleges–were always largely denied access to the narrative of cultural Bildung. On the other hand, corporations depend upon such institutions for the supply of labor-power. In the single instance where Readings does refer to non-elite institutions as part of the university system he reveals a predictably elitist perspective. Mentioning the sudden “redenomination” of British polytechnics as “universities” under the Thatcher regime, he notes that this “is best understood as anadministrative move: the breaking down of a barrier to circulation and to market expansion, analogous to the repeal of sumptuary laws that permitted the capitalization of the textile trade in Early Modern England” (38-9). His point–that the renaming of the polytechnics represents another instance of “excellence” as an empty, market-driven standard–is well taken. However it is significant that he misses this opportunity to consider the possibility for intervention resulting from the contradictory link between market logic and elitist hierarchies in the extension of “university” education to polytechnic students. In his focus on the “idea of the university” Readings fails to consider the role of the academy in the production of labor power, and consequently accepts the dominant postmodern assumption that consumption determines social relations.

The Academic Division of Labor

[12]   In elite universities the traditional prestige of the humanities began to erode with the expansion of scientific research in the 1950s. In actual practice what this meant was that the humanities were increasingly treated as window-dressing. A distinguished humanities program could be an impressive “ornament,” and the humanities faculty often enjoyed light teaching loads and ample research support, but everyone tacitly acknowledged that the sciences were first priority–the sciences were paying the bills. Even as the mission of first-tier research universities was being re-defined, however, the Cold War funding boom in public higher education also produced more than 400 “comprehensive” state universities, most of which were converted from existing “normal schools,” or teacher training colleges.

[13]   If one were to apply the “nuclear family” analogy to U. S. higher education during the first half of the twentieth century, the teachers’ colleges would definitely represent the “feminine” role. Teachers’ colleges employed thousands of educated women who were kept out of the research universities by the prevailing patriarchal social order. Illinois State University, where I teach, is a typical example of the pattern. In 1950, at Illinois State Normal University, as the institution was called then, 45% of the tenured and tenure-track faculty members were women, many of whom had doctoral degrees from the nation’s most prestigious universities. In 2000, 35% were women. This decline in the proportion of female faculty was an immediate side effect of the transformation U.S. higher education during the 1960s. As the system expanded, more faculty were hired, and, since the former teachers’ colleges were now becoming “universities” most of those new positions went to men. The “feminine” character of the teachers’ college was not merely a matter of demographics; then, as now, “teaching” was coded as feminine and “research” as masculine. In 1959 Illinois State Normal University enrolled 4,500 students and offered essentially two undergraduate degree programs (Bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Education and in Secondary Education) and one graduate degree program (a Master’s degree in Education for those who wanted to become Master Teachers, Guidance Counselors, or Principals). Just ten years later, in 1969, there were 14,500 students and a variety of degrees and majors. The institution was re-named “Illinois State University” in 1963. By the time I arrived, in 1987, there were 9 doctoral degrees–including one in English–and 35 master’s degree programs.

[14]   With the expansion of American higher education in the 1960s there was a window of opportunity for comprehensive state universities to appropriate some elements of the “mission” and “prestige” of the research universities. Institutions that had been narrowly focused on the vocational mission of teacher-training suddenly adopted the name “university” and tried to live up to it. What this meant, for me and other first-generation students, was a chance to get something more or less approximating a critical, liberal education that was not primarily focused on “practical” vocational skills training. In addition to a wider distribution of cultural capital, the transformation of the normal schools made the intellectual processes of critique (however limited within the framework of rationalist and idealist ideology) more widely available in American society. Almost immediately, however, there were efforts to rein in that democratic access by limiting the scope of humanities education at all levels. One of the most influential of these was a 1963 book, The Uses of the University, by Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr. “For the Berkeley chancellor,” Stanley Aronowitz writes, “there was no question that the humanities must recognize their secondary place in the new university order. They could uphold the values of Western civilization by teaching literature and history, but their role was clearly a subordinate one” (Aronowitz 32). But Kerr went beyond promoting scientific research as the central mission of higher education. Coining the term “multiversity,” Kerr outlined a blueprint for a two-tier university system in which the elite universities would produce the research that industry needs, while a lower tier of comprehensive public universities would produce the workers. Students in the second-tier state universities would get a sort of scaled-down, “proletarian” version of the traditional college education, with a more limited access to the humanities.

[15]   During the 1970s, aided by the fiscal constraints accompanying a deep recession, Kerr’s prescription for a hierarchically structured system of public higher education was realized to a large extent. Legislators began to cut back on public funding for higher education, and the second-tier institutions were hit the hardest. By the early 1980s the two large tuition-free and open-access university systems–CUNY and the California state universities–were forced to begin charging tuition. The Reagan administration drastically reduced student grants and eliminated most government-backed low-interest and interest-free higher education loans. Mindful of the recession, students in comprehensive universities abandoned the humanities for business and technical programs.

[16]   Meanwhile, the 1960s gains in enrollments among working-class, women and minority students had been consolidated, and these students began to put pressure effectively on the curriculum and pedagogical practices of the conservative humanities, sometimes under the banner of identity politics and sometimes simply as unarticulated forces of cultural difference. The new groups of students created productive discomfort in the classrooms simply by their presence. Humanities programs, as a result, were challenged from two different directions. On the one hand, corporations and their supporters in the academy began to press for more vocational skills training; on the other hand the traditional humanities were contested by feminist and anti-racist critiques, poststructural theory and, eventually, cultural studies. Like Readings, most critics focus on the new left identity politics movements–identified in the academic context as the legacy of the student revolts of 1968–as the driving force of the decline of the humanities (the conservative version) or the opening up of the canon (the liberal version). But this tendency to focus on 1968 overstates the importance of events at elite institutions and oversimplifies the effects of the changes in U. S. higher education during the 1960s in ways that undermine the work of progressive educators. While the public debates of the culture wars have focused mainly on feminist and anti-racist challenges to the literary canon in elite universities, a class struggle over access to the humanities goes on in the second-tier public institutions.

[17]   There is no legitimate argument for withholding humanities education from the masses of college students in comprehensive public universities. Humanities education is inexpensive, and clearly as valuable and important for working class students at comprehensive state universities as it is for managerial- and capitalist-class students at elite universities. Nonetheless, in the absence of debate over access to the humanities as an issue of class conflict, a misplaced hostility to feminism and multiculturalism in the society at large is exploited by policy-makers to rein in the intellectual scope and autonomy of state universities and their faculties. This campaign often takes the form of attacks against traditional faculty prerogatives such as tenure, academic freedom and “shared governance.” Although the widespread adoption of tenure and academic freedom for individual faculty members dates from the late 1940s, the current balance of administration and faculty power in university governance was established in a statement jointly recognized in 1966 by several professional groups including the American Council of Education, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Essentially, the 1966 document states that faculty should have primary responsibility for academic issues and faculty hiring, tenure and promotion, that administration should have primary responsibility for budgets, and that, while de jure responsibility for all academic and faculty status issues rests with governing boards, university decisions should only be overturned by governing boards under exceptional circumstances. Forged in the context of the transformation of the normal schools into comprehensive universities, the concept of shared governance played an important role in the 1960s expansion of American higher education. In order for the new comprehensive universities to perform like traditional universities, the faculty needed to have control of the academic mission of the university.

[18]   This understanding of the role of the faculty is inconvenient for the corporate-university system. Consequently, conservative critics of shared governance are arguing that the “academic culture” corrupts the virtues of strong leadership and that governing boards need to be more directly involved in the management of universities. Though this is fundamentally an instance of class warfare undertaken to limit access to critique-al education, the rhetoric deploys patriarchal and heteronormative ideology to undermine the “university” status of second-tier institutions and to disrupt the balance of power between faculty and administrators that was established during the 1960s expansion of higher education. James Fisher, an influential consultant to university governing boards, argues that in the last 30 years American universities have become paralyzed by the leveling of power among boards, administrators, faculty and students. Governing boards worsen conditions by including faculty and students in their governance deliberations, “and the most intransigent group in any organization is bound to be that which is invested in keeping it as it is–in this case, the faculty” (60-1). In order to avoid this kind of paralysis, Fisher recommends that boards should govern their campuses autocratically through strong presidents. Universities, he writes, need “transformational leaders,” not “transactional leaders.” Transactional leaders seek to develop consensus and work closely with faculty in institutional decision-making. The model of the transactional, or “collegial” leader, he writes,

is helpful only to rationalize inept presidencies and to justify ultimately paralyzing faculty control. Quite simply, there is no significant evidence to support an institution’s ability to change successfully, or even long maintain, without transformational leadership. (Fisher, 62)

The “transformational leader,” by contrast, avoids collegial relations with the faculty. In order to preserve the legitimacy of his leadership, Fisher argues, the president should maintain a posture of “social distance” from faculty:

Social distance means being present on important occasions and appearing, often, but briefly and informally, in the workplace. Day-to-day intimacy destroys illusions and makes the leader more debatable and less likely to be inspiring. Collegial contact can obscure strengths, highlight weaknesses, and eliminate perceived referent qualities. . . . The leader should inhibit the drive for familiarity, always remembering that familiarity invariably breeds debate, questions, doubts, and reservations. . . . Thus an element of mystery is all but essential in inspiring the interest and support of others. (Fisher, 65)

[19]   Although he doesn’t use gender-specific terms, Fisher’s understanding of the role of university administrators relies on a tacit deployment of the “family” analogy invoked in the epigram of this essay. The faculty and students are lumped together as irresponsible charges who can’t be trusted with important decisions, and the administrators are detached, mysterious and all-powerful fathers. The nuclear family analogy is routinely invoked by conservative politicians and activists outside the academy as well. For example, reporting on the conservative campaign to curtail faculty power in a recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education, reporter Jeffrey Selingo characterizes the “state college” as the errant child of the nuclear family of higher education:

The state college has long been considered the undistinguished middle child of public higher education–squeezed on the one side by research universities and on the other side by community colleges. Now state colleges are falling even further behind, partly because of their grandiose ambitions to be all things to all people. (Selingo, A40)

The desire “to be all things to all people,” Selingo tells us, has led to a phenomenon of “mission creep,” in which the former teachers’ colleges have diluted their proper mission of teacher training by adding master’s and Ph. D. programs that drew money away from their core undergraduate programs. Further, the comprehensive state universities are faulted even for offering too many undergraduate programs. In West Virginia, we are told, every state college but one offers undergraduate degrees in biology, chemistry and English. What’s wrong with that? Aside from being a self-evident waste of tax dollars, it seems, the programs overlap and compete with new distance education programs being developed by the flagship institutions and private, for-profit institutions. The solution, the article suggests, is two-fold. First, comprehensive state universities must scale back their missions and focus on teacher training; they must become “normal schools” again. But even this response would be problematic, since the conservative critics fault the institutions for failing to train future teachers adequately. So, further privatization is recommended. A member of the Nevada Board of Regents, Selingo reports, is recommending that three of the six schools at a new university in that state should be operated by private, for-profit companies in order to enhance competition and improve quality.

[20]   In this class warfare any gains made for feminism, women faculty, and the representation of women and minorities in the curriculum are pyrrhic victories, because the corporate-university system is functioning to reproduce an unequal division of labor in which traditionally gender and class hierarchies are only superficially transformed at best. As John Guillory has pointed out in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, even as more women authors are now taught in university literature courses and more women have entered professional and managerial fields, still the burden of poverty is increasingly borne by women in U. S. society. “The critique of the canon,” he argues, “can at present offer no analysis of the relation between the forms of cultural and material capital, nor will it ever if it merely confirms the imaginary ego ideal of a newly constituted professional-managerial class, no longer exclusively white or male.” “Let us recognize, then,” he continues,

that the university belongs to an educational system, inclusive of every level and every kind of school, higher and lower, public and private. If we have undertaken a necessary modernization of the curriculum in the last decade, we should reflect upon the fact that what has been revised is a curriculum in the university, in response to social pressures registered much more ambiguously at the lower levels of the educational system, where the democratization of the school has been simultaneously subverted by the withdrawal of public funding, the “de-skilling” of teachers, and the virtual removal of texts, literary or otherwise, from the classroom.(38)

[21]   In the context of the corporate-university system (as opposed to the “idea of the university,” or even the elite university as “corporate university”) the effort even to recover the traditional autonomy of Kantian “reason” for the academy–much less to develop a truly revolutionary institution of democratic education–begins with the pedagogy of critique. Critique, as Teresa Ebert has described it, “understands that all pedagogies are in one way or the other aimed at producing an efficient labor force . . . that pedagogy is part of class antagonisms” (Ebert 1996a, 812). The pedagogy of critique “seeks to develop knowledge of its connections to these labor forces in order to develop class consciousness” (Ebert 1996a, 814) Critique-al knowledge production is accountable to collective need rather than individual desire. Critique, in other words, seeks primarily to explain the enabling conditions of social relations–such as the masculine narrative of Bildung or the construction of student as customer–rather than to evaluate the performance of individuals in terms that take for granted the enabling conditions. We need to theorize our pedagogical practices in relation to the production of knowledge rather that focusing on the “education” of individual students. The assumption that pedagogy should focus on the individual student is a residue of humanist ideology to which most humanities faculty remain committed, notwithstanding the postmodern critique of individualism.

[22]   What does this mean for humanities educators? We need to examine with our students the material conditions of our work in the university, and the social relations of production into which the students are being inserted. We need to locate our particular programs and institutions in relation to the national academic prestige hierarchy, and in relation to the corporate profit-making agenda. We need to recognize that ideological constructions of gender and critiques of heteronormative gender construction that remain unconnected to the academy’s role in the social division labor may function at different institutional levels to undermine democratic education. By identifying the terms, limits and conditions of knowledge production at various levels of the academic prestige hierarchy we can articulate meaningfully situated goals and agendas capable of intervening against strictly vocationalist programs. In the absence of such a critique the idealist academic standards, canons, and orientations toward knowledge production set at elite institutions and the corporate-driven demands for vocational skills training become the default conditions for the humanities at all institutions. One example of the sort of pedagogical re-thinking that might emerge from this effort is found in Evan Watkins’ book, Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Watkins describes the corporate university in terms of an the administrative functionality in which the main thing students learn in English courses is a “labor process” that suits them for employment and the main thing teachers do is evaluate students as potential workers. English courses function this way even when students study noncanonical texts and read postmodern theory–the content matters less than the process. In order to develop a “praxis of intervention” in English studies, he suggests, it is necessary to understand how “concrete labor practices” such as critique “can be put to the tasks of exerting positional pressures on the way in which English functions to distribute social relationships in and through the process of evaluations” (Watkins 240). In other words, English teachers need to find ways to resist participating in the corporate labor sorting process.

[23]   Finally, the humanities continue to offer the most likely space for critique-al intervention in the academy. Therefore, progressive humanities faculty need to lead the struggle to preserve higher education as a democratic institution and to extend its capacity to serve the interests of citizens rather than corporations. I think this is going to require collective action–unionization. As someone who has helped to lead an unsuccessful unionization campaign, I am acutely aware of the difficulty of organizing and of the arguments against it. Most faculty members assume that unionization means better pay, but many faculty members worry that unionization will lead to just the sort of hierarchical management that is in fact occurring as a result of corporatization. In order to stop the trend toward corporatization we will need to develop faculty unions as professional organizations that will not bargain away faculty autonomy and control. And we will have to persuade colleagues to relinquish their attachment to the various versions of the “hero of the university” myth described by Readings. But there are some promising signs. In the past few years graduate teaching assistants at several different elite universities have organized unions. These graduate students recognize the emptiness of the “hero myth” and reject it. While administrators and some tenured faculty members argue that the graduate students are “apprentices” in training to become like the tenured faculty themselves, the graduate students recognize that their place in the academic division of labor doesn’t match that description. Graduate students in English departments, for example, typically teach most of the freshman composition courses, and they are by no means assured of tenure-track jobs when they complete their doctoral degrees. Most of the current graduate students who successfully land tenure-track jobs will be working not in elite institutions but in comprehensive public universities. I think they will be more aware than previous generations have been of the role that higher education plays in maintaining capitalist relations of production and unequal divisions of labor.

Acknowledgements: I owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Morton and Steve Meckstroth for their productive critiques of an early version of this essay. Remaining flaws are, of course, my own.


Works Cited

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