Often Is The Question Asked: How Can Our Children’s Learning Be Used to Make Capitalists Rich?

by zunguzungu

“Now,” says Mr. Gradgrind, “what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, Sir!”

As Rebecca pointed out, Obama’s State of the Union address persistently and repeatedly equated “education” with the STEM subjects (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math):

He often moved seamlessly back and forth between the two, without ever pointing out the equivalency he was creating. Take this paragraph:

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Then there’s this sentence, on the Dream Act, an exhortation that places science and business together at the top of the “most desirable occupation” pyramid:

Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation.

To which I would add Mark Yudof’s apologia for the UC, where he argued that “all Californians have a stake in making sure that this system of premier research campuses, medical centers and national laboratories remains on course to serve coming generations of Californians.” What he means, of course, is that the university does all sorts of things which can be (and are) plugged into the larger economy, and because of that, we all have a “stake” in those activities. In free market thinking, “the economy” is the force that gives us meaning; since we can only care about things that are quantifiable in market terms, it is only here that a defense of the university can be made.

As James Clifford put it, some months ago:

The so-called STEM Fields (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) enjoy an unprecedented hegemony in the University. Their epistemological and methodological opposition to the “liberal arts” grows ever more extreme, and more intolerant. How can we respond?

A precedent comes to mind, from a book that influenced me as a graduate student:  H. Stuart Hughes,Consciousness and Society (1958). Hughes, an intellectual historian in dialogue with Talcott Parsons and other leaders of Harvard’s “social relations” initiative, wrote in reaction to the 1950s boom in “social science.” His response begins with a chapter called “The Revolt against Positivism.” Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Croce, Pareto, Marx and Gramsci–the founders of modern social analysis– emerge as non-reductive, imaginative, yes “humanistic” thinkers, concerned with the unconscious, with indeterminate behaviors and complex, over-determined motivations.

The revolt against positivism wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a revolt against science.  But against a narrow, instrumentalist vision of science, a vision that fetishizes quantifiable, auditable outcomes—immediately useful (to whom?) and marketable (for whose benefit?) Does this sound familiar? I’m updating Hughes 1950s intervention for the neo-Liberal present, where we confront an economistic positivism perfectly adapted to the sink-or-swim, bootstraps (find your own grant support), privatized logics of an “entrepreneurial” system of rewards and punishments.

And I would also add Peter Osborne’s thoughts on the Middlesex Philosophy department and the UK more generally:

…There is a basic point here, which the new kind of university manager seems unable to grasp: namely, that there are markets in more ideas than ideas about markets; let alone that there are non-market forms of social exchange that are of social and economic value.

The politics here is one of pure marketization, pure capitalistic instrumentalization – a kind of anti-politics, in one sense, in fact…Philosophy has become iconic of the alleged ‘uselessness’ of the humanities as a whole. That this specific ‘uselessness’ is a condition of the production of certain kinds of social subject, important to democratic citizenship and cultural life, as well as certain types of production, is something recent governments in the UK have willfully decided to ignore.

One of the most chillingly ironic features of this process is the reversal in the meaning of ‘vocation’. That ‘the vocational’ – a religious concept denoting a divine calling to some special, morally significant work in life – should have come to convey the precise opposite of its established meaning (namely, something purely instrumental and of economic value alone) epitomizes the current situation: ‘capitalism as religion’ in Walter Benjamin’s phrase. What is equally startling, however, given the rhetoric of economic realism that accompanies the attack on university funding is that the case for purely ‘vocational’ and STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) alone, on economic grounds, has no empirical basis, at either micro or macro levels, even within its own terms.

At the macro level, a recent study has shown there to be ‘no significant relationship’ between a nation’s economic growth and the number of students studying STEM subjects (THE, 20/8/10). Rather, economic growth correlates with levels of investment in higher education in general, across all subjects. This is something else UK governments have chosen to ignore. In this respect, they do not appear to be behaving in a manner functional even to British capital, let alone the society as a whole. They are an incompetent representative of ‘capital in general’. This is because, historically, they have primarily represented the interests of its financial fraction: precisely that fraction that caused the current global financial crisis, now displaced into a crisis of sovereign debt. They are now addressing the latter in a manner designed to restore the fortunes of finance capital, whatever the costs to everything else.

I agree with all of this, but I also think we make a big mistake if we fail to recognize how closely connected STEM hegemony is to the concrete ways universities are used to subsidize private industry, the extent to which research — say, at a giant “public” university like the University of California — gets produced at tax-payer expense and then handed over to private corporations at a huge discount. Which seems to me to be the real logic of the push, since certainly it isn’t to better the situation of the American middle class. As Ed points out, for example, producing better educated workers will not help Americans “compete” with people who can do our jobs for a tenth of the compensation:

We could start churning out Stephen Hawking-caliber minds by the hundreds and it would not change the fundamental fact that we cannot compete with China and the “developing world.” Everything “engineers” and scientists can do can and will be done more cheaply there. And we did this to ourselves when we decided that having cheaper consumer goods for the top 10% of income earners was more important than having a middle class making decent money and driving the economy with (non debt-supported) purchasing.

When the upper- and middle classes decided 30 years ago that it would be a good idea to phase out the working class in favor of cheap foreign labor it appears obvious in hindsight that they were opening floodgates that would eventually result in white collar and highly skilled jobs going overseas as well. But something – subconscious racism, American exceptionalism, or perhaps good ol’ fashioned cockiness – convinced everyone in the suburbs and penthouses that this could never happen. Chinamen using computers? An Indian getting an MBA? Be serious! The unwashed masses of the Third World will never be able to do our jobs, said the comfortable elite. They will be useful for helping us break unions, but their skills are and ever shall be limited to menial physical labor.

First they came for the autoworkers, and I did not speak up. Then they came for the steel mills, and I did not speak up. Then they came for the white collars, and there was no one left to speak up for them.

It doesn’t matter how many math PhDs and computer scientists and engineers we produce. What’s the point? Within the next 15 to 20 years, every single one of those jobs will be done in Southeast Asia

Improving educational attainment in the US is meaningless when we’re in a race to the bottom, as we are. This is really about subsidizing private industry at public expense. As G. Pascal Zachary put it in 2007, after all, universities now effectively serve as the R&D departments for private corporations:

In the bygone days of innovation, large corporations — like RCA, Xerox and the old AT&T— maintained internal laboratories like Bell Labs. These corporate labs were essentially research universities embedded in private companies, and their employees published academic papers, spoke at conferences and even gave away valuable breakthroughs. Bell Labs, for instance, created the world’s first transistor after World War II — and never earned a dollar from the innovation. Almost no corporate labs based on the Bell or Xerox model remain, victims of cost-cutting and a new appreciation by corporate leaders that commercial innovations may flow best when scientists and engineers stick to business problems.

The obsession with marrying research and markets, while generally a strength of American capitalism, leaves some needs unmet. To fill them, “companies need boots on the ground at universities,” says Henry Chesbrough, a business professor who studies innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. A vanguard group of universities is giving corporations greater access to ivory-tower laboratories — for a price. Stanford has paired with Exxon Mobil in a deal worth $100 million over 10 years. The University of California, Davis, is getting $25 million from Chevron. And Intel has opened collaborative laboratories with Berkeley, the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon.

Speaking of “the new kind of university manager,”  Pascal quotes my own beloved Chancellor:

“This is a new model we’re working through in real time,” says Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of Berkeley. “Will these partnerships produce products you won’t get from two people in a garage?” Mr. Birgeneau asks. “We don’t know that yet. It is an important question.”

By contrast to this guy — who fits that definition to the “T” in STEM — I offer you this speech by his predecessor, Robert Berdahl, who (in a fascinating rhetorical move) explicitly likened himself to the Eisenhower who “presided, as President, over the largest growth of the military in the peacetime history of the United States, but in his “farewell” speech felt compelled to warn Americans about the growing military-industrial complex”:

…there is a significant shift that has taken place over the last few years that is worth noting, because it may signal an entirely new phase in the historical development of American universities. This new phase can be summarized — or characterized, depending on one’s viewpoint — as signaling the emergence of an industrial-university research partnership.

The evolution of this partnership has been especially evident in California, above all in Silicon Valley, and in Massachusetts, in the industrial region known as the Route 128 corridor, outside of Boston. But university research parks, intended to attract industrial partners have sprung up everywhere. These are the centers of high-technology industries dependent both on the intellectual capital — the ideas generated in research universities — and the human capital — the students educated in these universities. Many of the new companies that have developed in California have been founded by faculty or students from Stanford or the University of California. One-third of all of the biotechnology companies in the world are in California and an equal percentage have been founded by faculty at the University of California. Both Stanford and Berkeley have faculty actively engaged in founding new companies, both are investing some portion of their endowment in venture capital, and Stanford has just announced that it will take an equity interest in a company founded by its faculty.

By far the most controversial decision we have made at Berkeley since I became Chancellor three years ago has been to enter into an agreement between the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute and the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University. According to this agreement, Novartis will provide $5 million per year in support of basic research in the department. The decision about which applications for funding are approved is determined by a five-person committee; two of the members of the committee are from Novartis, three are from the University. Novartis may not dictate which research proposals are funded.

Novartis, in turn, is given the right to license patents held by the University of up to one third of the patentable intellectual property developed by the department of Plant and Microbial Biology, with the University retaining the patent rights and earning normal patent royalties from the patents. Participating faculty, in turn, receive access to proprietary databases held by Novartis.

The critics of this contract argue that the University has struck a Faustian bargain with Novartis.


He more or less defends his actions, and the transformation of the university under his watch. Maybe he couldn’t do otherwise. Yet it’s moments like this that speak much louder to me:

As a historian, I am inclined to compare this process of the privatization of public education in America to the Enclosure Movement in England and Europe from about the 17th to the 19th centuries. The Enclosure Movement in England had profound social consequences. The Enclosures, supported by over 4,000 separate acts of parliament in England, allowed the large landholders to “enclose” the common lands that traditionally had been legally reserved for the yeoman peasantry. Denied access to the commons, where they could graze their livestock, cut wood, fish in streams, the peasants could no longer sustain themselves. They were driven off of the land, largely into the cities and towns, where they formed the basis for the proletariat that provided the labor force for the industrial revolution, and, incidentally, populated the drawings of Hogarth and the novels of Dickens. Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village” was a commentary on the depopulation of the countryside that resulted from enclosures.

In some significant ways, public universities have been the “commons,” providing access to high quality education to those who would not otherwise obtain it. From the creation of the land-grant university system, this commons has been expanding. The GI Bill after World War II produced a social revolution by providing higher education to millions of people who would not otherwise have had it. The growth of public institutions through the 1960s added substantially to the commonwealth of higher education. Today, over 70% of those enrolled in postsecondary education in the United States are in public institutions. The reduction of access to these commons through the privatization of public universities and by limiting access to them may well reverse this pattern and produce a social transformation of an entirely different, and unwelcome, type.