The Bad University Department

Some thoughts from Henry Giroux (professor, board of directors at which I found directly relevant and applicable to the situation in higher education as I encounter it. Here are his “four rules for a bad university department.” They were meant to be critical, yet somehow some departments seem to follow these principles to the letter.

I have been thinking along similar lines over these years, with some observations reinforced from a review of a small mountain of applications to study at the MA and PhD levels in sociology and anthropology. My impression, for what that’s worth, is that graduate students tend to be less creative, intellectually daring, curious, and politically radical than the undergraduate students, as if something vital had been trained out of them by the time they apply for graduate studies. One can find in their research proposals long sentences that consist almost entirely of a string of names of famous theorists, rather than actual ideas and substantive questions. Producing such a shopping list of the great theorists leads me to believe that study for these applicants is a form of consumption, not the production or exploration of new knowledge. The exercise looks like recitation. Literature reviews are seemingly interminable. The only independence shown is in trying to find some niche in the mass of literature where one’s project “fits,” so that the effort of reviewing literature itself inspires a conservative approach to contributing to what is already in place, the status quo. One day, some may apply for academic employment, and in secret hiring committees will meet to discuss whether the applicant is a good “fit” with the Department. They tell applicants what the Department wants, and applicants better suppress any independent streaks that could promise threatening new directions.

Many of the proposed research projects reveal certain underlying tendencies and assumptions about the position of the researcher and his/her view of the world. A good number of the proposed research projects play with identity issues (particularly identities which the researcher personally shares)–it’s always all about me. A significant minority are about comfortable, leisurely, bourgeois niche topics of no social relevance. You would never think that the world was burning from reading these proposals, and that the world is burning academia. Instead one might feel that these applicants believe the world to be a safe, stable and comfortable place, and one that is just waiting to welcome them with open arms and award them high-paying, permanent jobs in return for their years of submission to the rigours imposed from older persons’ research interests.

Here are some other points on related issues that Giroux makes in a recent interview

…how do power, politics and knowledge connect in creating the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, subjectivities, and social relations in both the school and the classroom. While power is never uniform either in its constellations or effects, it is true that within particular historical formations some modes of power dominate over others and often constrain the types of struggles and modes of governance involved in decisions regarding what counts as knowledge. At the current moment, it is fair to say that the dominant mode of power shaping what counts as knowledge takes its cue from what can be called neoliberalism or what can be called unfettered free-market capitalism. Market fundamentalism that not only trivializes democratic values and public concerns, but also enshrines a rabid individualism, an all-embracing quest for profits, and a social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and a Hobbesian “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others….

The role of democratic education has been devalued in favor of a pedagogy of commodification and repression. At the same time, education has been refigured both ideologically and structurally. The educational force of the wider culture is now the primary site where education takes place, what I have called public pedagogy—modes of education largely produced, mediated, and circulated through a range of educational spheres extending from the new media and old broadcast media to films, newspapers, television programs, cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, and other commercial sites. Ideologically, the knowledge, values, identities, and social relations produced and legitimated in these sites are driven by the imperatives of commodification, privatization, consuming, and deregulation. At stake here is the creation of a human being that views him or herself as a commodity, shopper, autonomous, and largely free from any social obligations. This is a human being without ethics, a concern for others, and indifferent to human suffering.

7 thoughts on “The Bad University Department

  1. Perfect focus on the roots of the problem is illustrated by your reference to graduate students who seem to have had “something vital trained out of them.”
    I do hope to sideswipe this issue in my next article, on TRADOC, who, I will propose, is at the center of designing the bubble in which graduate students get “something vital trained out of them. ” My thesis will be that there has been for a long time and is increasingly integrated into our daily lives through “media” and “education” that is leading toward …. welll there is a book, the sequal to the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth”, entitled “2052, A global forecast for the next forty years”; and it attempts to see where we are globally, collectively going. The most chilling part for me is Chapter 7: The Non-Material Future to 2052. Especially the subsection on Megacity Living and Externalization of the Mind; which is like my worst dreams expressed in some of my essays here, such as Herding Humans and the Elimination of Alternatives
    and Virtual Solitary Confinement of Local Hearts and Minds
    [ }

    and, this recalls to me the mind of the “Primitive” as represented by Jaime D’Angulo: He describes what we ar losing, have lost?

     The Background of Religious Feeling in a Primitive Tribe”. (Jaime De Angulo, 1926 , Amer. Anthrop. 28: 352-360)

    [Note: Jaime de Angulo was a physician turned anthropologist, He was born in Paris, France in 1887 of rich expatriate Spanish parents. He graduated from John Hopkins Medical School and then spent several years travelling before settling into a career as a linguist and anthropologist. As part of the Anthropology faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, he worked with Boas, Lowie, Kroeber and Sapir as a specialist in language and psychology. He was influential in the development of the approach known as the California school of cultural anthropology. He raised horses in Alturas, where he made a study of the Pit River People part of his life from 1910 until his death in 1949. ]

    This article emphasizes the basis for the current concern with multiculturalism and the different way that a “primitive” society views and lives in the world.

    “Animals are not imbeciles. There is in the life of wild things in a wild setting a multitude of interactions to which the mind of civilized man is not attuned because it is of the necessity oriented to another aspect of mental energy, namely the rational. To understand the psychology of the Pit River people, it is necessary to visualize their extremely intimate contact with the trees, the rocks, the weather and the delicate changes in the atmosphere, with the shape of every natural object, and, of course, with the habits not only of every species of animal but of many individuals. It is almost impossible for a civilized man to form any conception of the degree of intimacy with nature this represents. No civilized man would ever have the patience and energy to loaf in a wild place long enough to catch this subtle rhythm of interactions. (p. 353)

  2. As Chomsky has noted (loosely quoting): The primary function of education in the US is to teach people to behave.

    This, including totalitarian control over the range of permissible thought (regurgitation) finds its most extreme expression in US Law Schools. (Thereby controlling permissible debate within the broader legal profession itself. How convenient.)

    Chomsky, Giroux and Paul Street understand this well.

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