Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
|Reviews||Inside Corporate U: Women in the Academy Speak Out
Toronto: Sumach Press, 2004
The fate of the university as described in this collection of essays is the same now as when it first appeared four years ago, only more so. The essays that it contains remain relevant, for the processes it analyses are still in place; and, if they are not accelerating, they are certainly consolidating.
The main theme is consistent throughout. Although some critics of contemporary higher education have a roseate recollection of academic life prior to the international triumph of neoliberalism in the age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, it is at least clear that something of importance has transpired in academia over the past generation. The concept of Corporate U is apt.
From the 1970s to the present day, the right-wing ideologues of neoliberalism have succeeded in taking control of many governments and, where they did not actually exercise formal power, they still managed to set the political agenda. Among their principal tenets are the importance of reducing the size and influence of government, rebuilding what remains of the public sector on a business-like basis (frequently called “new public management”), reframing the concept of citizen into that of consumer and changing public sector service providers into commodity producers. Implicit in this transformation, and of special concern for educators, is the effect that this change has for the meaning and mission of thought, knowledge and learning.
It should go without saying that educational institutions have always served social purposes, and have carried out their programs in a manner consistent with the dominant ideology in any era. The great European universities began as extensions of the church and graduated priests, lawyers and statesmen. The industrial revolution assisted in opening up higher education to science and technology a modification that culminated in the middle of the last century when it became widely believed that practical knowledge needed to be shared with the majority of citizens, partly to fulfill a democratic obligation to provide equality of opportunity, but mostly because the new technology-driven economy required workers with more brains than brawn.
In politics, the gradual extension of the right to vote has produced a formal democracy in Western industrial nations, but the “will of the people” is exercised in a manner not unlike the will of the consumer making choices among a limited range of “branded” alternatives which are presented within strict ideological boundaries, and offered in a context that limits anything remotely resembling participatory decision making. In economics, the free marketplace open to artisans, small merchants and yeoman farmers, who had been predominant in the days of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, has become antique, as the normalization of the limited liability company possessed of all the legal rights and protections of individual citizens had already become an established legal fact by the end of the nineteenth century. In the process, politics and economics both became exercises in large-scale marketing as gigantic multinational enterprises and cartels reshaped and essentially distorted the production and distribution of both public and private goods and services both domestically and internationally.
Today, calls for efficiency, accountability and customer satisfaction trump concerns for social justice and lofty purposes including scholarship, which is now redesigned as the entrepreneurial marketing of intellectual property. Reflecting alterations in the mode of production, the control of the goals, methods and social relations within educational institutions have changed as well.
Marilee Reimer’s collection generally accepts the analysis as summarized here. It does not advance the argument a great deal, but it certainly fills in a number of gaps, and establishes some solid links among topics of immediate concern to college educators. Its main accomplishment is that it does so using a blended chorus of women’s voices that make clear that the “progressive” forces on campus and elsewhere whether they deal in matters of class, race or gender need to listen more attentively to one another if any “progress” is to be made.
If the resulting conversation is somewhat insular in that little is said about grand global narratives such as war and peace, ecological degradation and so on, that may be temporarily excused. We need to start somewhere, and a fresh beginning may best be achieved if the various components of critical educational theory and practice emerge from distinct areas with a firm understanding of their own circumstances as well as a general comprehension of structures and methods of power in the larger setting.
So it is that the contributors to this collection mainly women in universities, although the voice of non-degree-granting colleges is heard as well focus largely on local themes. The contested space occupied by “women’s studies” programs, the peculiar Orwellian use of formal “equity centres” to stifle academic freedom and sometimes to target faculty who have become annoying to administration, and the transformation of student residence facilities once a vital part of the student experience into corporate businesses intended not only to profit but to serve as ideological training centres, are examples of the day-to-day institutions and activities of “Corporate U” that are interrogated in this invigorating and often spirited volume.
Throughout, the presence of Dorothy Smith is evident. She is the author of the opening chapter, and is cited often in subsequent essays. This is one of the main strengths of the volume, for Smith has been a formidable part of feminist scholarship for several decades including the 1970s, when she presided over my own long-postponed introduction to feminist scholarship at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her principal works, including The Everyday World as Problematic (1987), The Conceptual Practices of Power (1990) and Institutional Ethnography (2005), have provided guidance to feminist scholars who have wanted to redesign inquiry in a manner that would transcend the alleged objectivity of the social sciences, and make available to academic writers and activists (and not just women) a method of comprehending power that incorporates more than the abstract language and form of traditional Marxism on the one hand and the statistical preoccupations of positivistic behavioural science on the other.
By applying the critical analysis of discourse in reframing discussion of postsecondary education as a service industry, the writers in this book reveal the nature and extent of the subversion of higher education by corporate interests and the easy acquiescence with which many educators have submitted to the corporate will. Our colleges and universities are currently intended mainly to produce graduates who will be productive workers, docile consumers and compliant citizens. It is endlessly arguable how much this is the consequence of timidity among teachers, narrow opportunism on the part of the bloated managerial strata that now sits atop the classrooms and the research facilities, and the ruthless use of fiscal instruments (cuts to public funding and its partial replacement by corporate “partnerships” plus, of course, unconscionable increases in student tuition). However the blame is finally apportioned, it has become plain that the notion of universities and colleges, as autonomous entities possessed of academic freedom and dedicated to the development of individual potentialities and genuine social improvement on terms other than those dictated by the extant power structures, has been largely purged by the authorities and abandoned by those it now controls.
Any revitalization of authentic education, as opposed to mere job training and the transference of “marketable skills” to a new generation of uncritical components of an increasingly volatile and vulnerable labour force will depend on two things: the creation of a coherent body of practical theory upon which to conceptualize what is wrong with the academy, and the inspiration to generate the political will to do something about it.
Inside Corporate U goes some way toward presenting that body of practical theory to readers who already feel at least an inchoate dissatisfaction with the manner in which academic activities have been deformed and disfigured over the five decades that have passed since the peculiar explosion of anxiety, optimism and expansion that followed the launching of the Sputnik satellite and awakened North Americans to the lethargy of their efforts in providing educational opportunities to the young.
At that time, the frenzy of activity in building new institutions and expanding others to meet the perceived political and economic challenges of a new technological era were at least balanced by the recognition that higher education involved a necessary balance between preparation for work and personal responsibility for individual development and conscious citizenship. In the preferred slogan of my old alma mater (and in the sexist language of the day), the task of postsecondary institutions was to educate “the whole man.” Feminists have since taught us to speak of “the whole person,” but it is now required of us that we address the definition of “whole,” for much of that “person” is neglected, if not openly suppressed, by the theories and practices of the corporate academy.
An active reading of this thoughtful anthology will do no harm to such the emancipatory project of questioning reality as it is and restoring the possibility of reality as it might have been.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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