Reframing the Revolution

When I started teaching I liked to think that I was participating in the education of a new generation which would reinforce the foundations of democracy; today I feel more like a job trainer.

Reframing the Revolution
“From a democratic perspective the effects of privatization are counter-revolutionary; but from a capitalist viewpoint they are revolutionary.”        - Sheldon Wolin

I became a teacher because I place a high value on education as a means to improve society. I try to do that by making sure that my students are well-equipped to be active members of society while also ensuring that they are well-prepared for the job market. Society and the job market, civil society and the not-always-so-civil job market. The former is founded on cooperation and a sense of shared purpose; the latter on competition and self interest. So how do we prepare our students to be participants in civil society and also equip them with the skills and the attitude necessary for success in a cutthroat job market? We are all, students and teachers, being pulled in two directions and we need discuss how this came about and how we can do better for our students. When I started teaching I liked to think that I was participating in the education of a new generation which would reinforce the foundations of democracy; today I feel more like a job trainer.

After decades of neoliberal economics, trickle down economics, economics for the sake of economics, we’ve ended up with an economic narrative in the classroom instead of a civic narrative. Education based on the almighty “free market” damages education and society. As Paulo Freire stated, “There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.” Pedagogy is not a blank canvas, it is not ideologically detached, and for decades we’ve been teaching using the syllabus written by corporate capitalism. Professionalism in the educational system has been replaced with the unending and pointless search for “efficiencies” — how do we churn out another generation of workers-cum-consumers at the lowest possible cost? Teachers, even the best of us, have become production line workers and our product is homo economicus. Civics be damned! Of course it’s not our fault, after all, teachers are the products of their times. Neoliberalism has been polluting the public domain for at least forty years and most of us were born into a hyper-capitalist world in which the liberal arts are seen as a boondoggle. What does Henry James have to do with getting a job and why should the taxpayers have to fork over so that some deluded child can learn about him? So, we teach what capitalism demands. The corporatization of universities has made pedagogy the domain of the private sector and its partners in the administrative departments of schools. Education is now a commodity.

How did this happen? These days it’s almost taken for granted that efficiency is best served by integrating technology into the pedagogy of higher education. Like all of us, I like to think that I’m efficient, and I probably am. This is a good thing, right? After all, we live in a culture which values efficiency. However, if we’re concerned with the purpose of education we also have to be concerned about the definition of efficient. If I say that I, as an individual, am efficient that means that I get a lot done in a timely manner. But efficiency is a loaded term when applied to society at large and especially to a public trust such as education; efficiency is measured in tax dollars more than anything else. So, like many concepts in our society the notion of efficiency has become loaded down with economic connotations. Economic efficiency is generally measured as the optimal mix of inputs resulting in the maximum amount of output at the least possible cost. To put that in the context of higher education we must ask what is the price of a university education and how can we produce that education using means which result in the lowest cost and the maximum profit. Technology lowers the cost of mass-producing the educational product by requiring fewer teachers and lower overhead. So it’s now economically efficient to integrate technology into the educational process. And what’s wrong with using technology as a teaching tool? It helps us to reach out to students in remote areas (especially helpful in the remote areas) and during the Covid-19 pandemic it allows us to continue teaching. Technology, however, is no more neutral than pedagogy and efficiency; it comes with its own baggage. Looking back to the 1997 faculty strike at York University in Toronto, David Noble brings our attention to the role of technology as the university administration attempted to introduce online courses without consulting faculty. “The most egregious example of the administration’s approach was an official solicitation to private corporations inviting them to permanently place their logo on a university online course in return for a $10,000 contribution to courseware development.” I teach at small tertiary-level institution in the Caribbean where we use Blackboard as an LMS. An LMS, like many online technologies, has a tendency to destroy the individualism which should be an integral part of the learning process. By treating all students in the same way an LMS flattens everything. I’ve had students in my classes who were quiet, extremely shy, yet I could see that they were learning because they were there together with me in our classroom. However, I often wonder to what extent those shy, quiet students are learning when I interact with my students through the translucent filter of technology.

Many universities and colleges use an online program manager (OPM) to handle the migration to online courses but OPMs also open the door to the further commercialization of higher education. The private sector is already firmly established in academia, OPMs simply increase our reliance on corporate financing. As Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel have written, the technology we ask our students to use and that we ourselves use often uses us in return. We teach in a digital world that bears little resemblance to the Wild West days of the Internet in the mid-1990s; the digital world has been privatized like everything else. Higher education has become a profit-seeking business not just for the companies that sell OPMs but for the companies that claim the intellectual property of our students and ourselves. Technology can be used as a Trojan horse promising technological wonders while concealing the privatization of public universities. This in turn leads to further government “defunding” of universities, a favourite policy of small-c conservative governments pushing the neoliberal agenda, and the spiral into the commoditization of education is off and running. This, as Sheldon Wolin points out in his book Democracy Incorporated, is a revolutionary act from the capitalist point of view. Of course not all revolutions have happy endings.

We should not dismiss corporate capitalism as a sclerotic final stage in capitalist development. Capitalism has always been a dynamic system and the current iteration retains the original energy and vitality; what differs is that the corporations have upped the stakes and are seeking to control the minds of future generations. The corporations have deep pockets and very definite ideas about how our world should be run; they are the revolutionaries and we are the reactionaries. And the private sector revolutionaries have found their fellow travellers in university administrators. However, if enough citizens still value education as a means to teach civics then we will view ourselves as the revolutionaries and the corporations as counter-revolutionaries with deep pockets and an agenda. But for now the corporations are in the driver’s seat; it’s their revolution, we’re just along for the ride.

Does any of this matter? After all, the private sector knows what’s best for the economy, doesn’t it? If more university grads get jobs then society is better off, so the argument goes. But this is an argument based on the application of market principles to the academic world. Does it really empower students or enhance democracy inside or outside the classroom? Does the commoditisation of education make society more just? More equal? The answer was quite apparent in 2019 when a number of wealthy parents were caught buying access to elite American universities for their children who just didn’t qualify for these Ivy League schools. If there was ever a blatant example of the failure of the almighty Free Market to allocate resources rationally this was it. Perhaps this breach of the law (would it even have been a high-profile scandal if not for the presence of celebrity parents?) was inevitable. In a society based on a fanatical belief in the Free Market everything has its price and everyone can be bought. Capitalism, even corporate capitalism, may be dynamic but it’s not always logical and it certainly isn’t democratic. If a university degree is a ticket to a solid middle-class existence then it would be logical to offer free higher education to everyone as long as they can meet the academic standards required to complete their degree. This would be logical but the Free Market says “no” to this because capitalism requires a profit in order to justify anything. And so, working class children don’t go to university or college they get jobs at Amazon “fulfillment centers.” So much for the efficiency of the Free Market.

Corporations have been pushing their revolutionary agenda in education under the guise of helping their employees to improve themselves. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this; who wouldn’t want to see our fellow citizens—sorry, our fellow consumers get ahead in life? Amazon has established learning programs for its employees. In 2019 Amazon announced that its employees can take courses at the company’s Machine Learning University and Amazon Technical Academy. I applaud Amazon for helping its employees to get ahead but I worry about the further privatization of learning. It’s safe to say that Amazon views this as revolutionary and once again I find myself cast in the role of a counter-revolutionary. Education needs an ethical content and this is often simply overlooked by those advocating neoliberalism and a greater role for the private sector. Amazon is providing an “education” within the narrow context of a job description, nothing more. In 1954, Jacques Ellul wrote that education was placing greater and greater emphasis on the training of technical experts. Ellul was prescient in his warning. “And education will no longer be an unpredictable and exciting adventure in human enlightenment, but an exercise in conformity and an apprenticeship to whatever gadgetry is useful in a technical world.” All he missed was that it would be a privatized exercise in conformity. Ellul’s definition of technique emphasized “absolute efficiency.” Hence today’s pedagogical efficiency is really economic efficiency, the constrained efficiency of the job market.

“For the critic, the important thing is the continuing transformation of reality, in behalf of the continuing humanization of men.” - Paolo Freire

Recent events have shown that the economy has proven to be a lot more fragile than we thought. We need to focus on education as the backbone of society, not on education as the backbone of the economy. COVID-19 has changed the narrative, and we as teachers must prepare our students for a world of shocks, for a world filled with the unanticipated. The narrative has changed overnight and teachers have an obligation to seize this chance to be revolutionary from a democratic viewpoint, to be counter-revolutionary from a capitalist viewpoint. We need a pedagogy that is fluid not rigid, adaptable not inflexible. Teaching is, above all else, a human endeavour and the human mind cannot be restrained within the confines of a corporate capitalist system which is, at its core, inhuman. If, as Freire said, we are to transform reality in order to humanize men and women then we must act against the corporate capitalist revolution. A corporate capitalist reality is not a democratic reality. We must not flinch in our criticism of a system which favours the wealthy and denies the working class the opportunity to take their rightful part in society. Capitalism had always had low expectations of the working class: learn how to read, write, do arithmetic, and show up for work on time Monday morning. This is a narrative which educational professionals can work to change. The purpose of education is to benefit society, not make a profit for corporations.

In order to transform the reality of education for all concerned we need not shy away from technology. If the private sector has used technology as a Trojan horse to introduce corporate control of the educational agenda then we can certainly use technology to regain a democratic agenda. Technology can empower both students and faculty if it is freed of corporate control and returned to the public domain. We must become revolutionary in the democratic sense and counter-revolutionary in the corporate sense; privatization - the pet project of neoliberalism - has gone far enough. Personal liberty and social freedom have suffered under decades of corporate bureaucratic strangulation. The protection of intellectual property is a keystone in the foundation of a freer educational agenda in a digital world. Any software developed for use in teaching should be developed as open source technology; faculty and students should work together on a non-profit basis. There is a broad community of software developers within academia, why not make use of their talents? Any reasonable measure which undercuts corporate control of technology and finances within universities should be considered.

The administrative side of higher education will put up a fight against this, money talks and many administrators have heard its siren call. Governments will resist providing additional funding for public universities. In many ways faculty and students attempting to reset the narrative from a private to a democratic foundation may well find themselves fighting on both of these fronts. Nothing good comes easy.

A university degree must be more than just a ticket to an office job and a middle-class existence in the suburbs. The entire educational experience, from K-12 through university should be based on curricula designed to give students the tools needed to think critically, to be thoughtful and spirited participants of a democratic society. The social value of an education far outweighs the dehumanized economic vision of what an “educated” individual is; first and foremost we are citizens, even though the capitalist revolution would deny us this basic identity. Rescuing higher education from the capitalist revolution, no matter how difficult that may be, is a sine qua non of building a truly democratic society.