Academia deserves its crisis

Competition and wisdom are two different paths that will never intersect. As future academics and intellectuals, we need to seek wisdom rather than playing games and politics against our peers to get status and power.

Louis Yako
20 October 2013

Earlier this year, I was invited to be part of a student panel to welcome all new PhD students to the large research university I am currently attending and to share with them my words of “wisdom,” so that they can learn more about the upcoming challenges of graduate student life. The student panel was the last on the list of speakers, so we had to wait for and listen to people with impressive titles - most of us did not even know what they exactly do at the university - titles like “provost”, “associate” to this, “assistant” for that, “co-director” of this center, and “under-secretary” for such and such affairs. It was clear from these presentations that graduate students (future educators and researchers) are being encouraged to think of themselves as at-will employees who are expected to simply do the job and do it “well”, according to the norms of corporate thinking. 

 Administrative panelists at this event rarely used words like “students”, “education”, “creativity”, or “dissidence”. Instead, they constantly reminded new students to behave themselves, to maintain “a good academic standing”, and to “work hard”. More interestingly, they also shared that, upon graduation, there is a big world out there awaiting newly minted PhDs. They stressed the fact that more than 50% of students in this field or 60% of students in that discipline have gotten jobs outside of academia upon graduation. This sounds nice and encouraging, but the real wisdom lies not in just paying attention to what is being said, but in what is being omitted from their speeches. In this case, what is not being said is that many PhD holders are seeking non tenure-track jobs upon graduation simply because academia has become so alarmingly corporate that it would rather hire adjuncts to do the job cheaply and without the hassle of having to provide educators with any respect, basic services, or permanent positions within academia. However, academia does not seem to have any problem hiring business managers, project managers, or, more specifically, an executive director for “globalizing” this university, or an executive director for “reaching out” to that “third world” country (usually a polite term of postmodern colonization). Now, isn’t it quite ironic - and frightening - that we may be coming to a day when we may find all kinds of full-time, steady and secure jobs at universities, except jobs for educators?

Does this tell us anything about the nature of the corporate plan attempting to strip academics and intellectuals of their voices? Does it tell us anything about a potential scheme to turn teaching into a pure form of slave labor that forces educators to behave themselves and not dare to exasperate the big corporate bosses ruling them, lest they lose the little money they earn from adjuncting? Equally, we ought to ask, does this tell us anything about the degree of passivity and inaction academics have reached in accepting such pressures, humiliation and insecurity in the first place?

I think the latter question is more important for us to reflect upon as the future generation of academics and intellectuals. As such, we have to bear in mind that oppression is almost never imposed on people in one big dose, because that could trigger an immediate uprising on the part of those affected by it. Instead, oppression is given in small doses in such a way that each dose in itself is insignificant or negligible, but it is the total amount of these small doses that creates a great state of oppression and injustice.

It is noteworthy and maybe promising to note that the five-minute speeches given by us, the student panel members, differed from the previous speakers. For example, most of us emphasized the fact that living in a cut-throat environment is really not healthy for anyone; that if we are to produce any meaningful and powerful works, it is through collaborating with each other rather than ruthlessly competing against each other. We all emphasized that the whole concept of “competition” needs to be revisited. In my view, competition and wisdom are two different paths that will never intersect, and as future academics and intellectuals, we need to seek wisdom rather than playing games and politics against our peers to get status and power. Indeed, other people need not to fail for us to succeed, and being a graduate student (or a professor for that matter) should be an opportunity to dig for knowledge rather than to dig intellectual graves for our colleagues and fellow scholars.

Now that the new students have made it through their first day of speeches about life in graduate school, their next step will almost certainly be to start hearing similar corporate rhetoric from their respective departments about “professionalization,” which has become one of the biggest buzz words on US campuses, as if lack of professionalization and publications are the actual causes of the market crisis in academia. Instead of wasting their breath on professionalization, our professors should help us envision a way to abolish the state of corporatization and greed that tirelessly works to strip academics of any dignity and decent pay to pursue knowledge and independent research. They should help us rethink and change the worn-out concept of the “job market” under capitalism, which is designed to dispose of people in a second if deemed unprofitable to the system. As most of us know, US academia has long operated under the mediocre slogan of “publish or perish”, not taking into account that very often writers may perish the minute they publish if they do not have something meaningful and earth-breaking to say.

As though adding to human knowledge can occur simply by killing some trees and publishing (mostly recycling) a couple of articles a year or one book every few years. Many academics that operate according to this shallow slogan do not seem to remember Dostoyevsky’s words that the most difficult thing in life is to actually say something new, or those of George Orwell, who once stated: “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.” In other words, it is not the quantity of publications, but their quality and the effects they have on the real world outside of academia that determines whether we shall live way after we exit this life, or perish while we are still 30! As one of my Chinese friends profoundly puts it, “Great books are few. A great book is like a finger pointing to the star; once you see the star, you do not need the finger anymore!”

The question we are left with here: can we really reach the star, and are we worthy of it?

I will conclude by sharing with you a secret joy that rushes through my blood: I am happy about the current crisis in academia, because, as I see it, academia is the mirror of society, and the ugly academic reality we are witnessing nowadays is an indication that we have let society down, and that we have not done a good job in being part of people’s struggle for justice.

The corporatization of academia in the western world is not new, but it seems to me that it is reaching quite an alarming point that should make us act swiftly against the inhumane institutionalization of knowledge and creativity for the interests of the powerful few.

Given the current pace of this corporatization, academia may well become the worst institution for indoctrinating and subjugating many brilliant minds that may otherwise have great potential for dissidence and creating a new worldview, which is much needed amid the global turmoil we are experiencing internationally.

In fact, I believe that what is happening around the world is not simply an economic or political turmoil, but a turmoil that is interconnected and intertwined on so many levels, and its primary cause is the corporate, capitalist and greedy mentality that is neither working nor sustainable at its current rate.

Simply put, it was not enough for the US to alienate its own people within its borders, and now, along with the so-called “world powers,” it is spreading alienation and greed all over the place. The massive upheavals we are witnessing are a consequence of the capitalist mindset that encourages people to seek infinite possessions and materials in a world with finite resources, which has in turn reached a pace much more dangerous in its behavior than that of cancer cells.

This is precisely where academia is needed to help people find the vision that we all need to save the sinking ship of capitalism and greed, rather than cooperate with power to maintain the status quo and the fat big paychecks for the few “fortunate”, while leaving the overwhelming - and overwhelmed - majority of people to suffer the consequences.


This article was originally published in Counterpunch on September 29,2013

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