US education and the crisis



Governments across the globe are dramatically reducing funding for public education and raising university tuition rates. These measures are often cast as a response to the current economic crisis but really their implementation began well before it. Whereas in Britain, Italy, and other European countries students battle police in the streets and experiment with new means to protest such government actions, there is a relative calm on U.S. campuses.

Forty and fifty years ago US student movements were among the most active and innovative in the world, not only protesting against militarism, racism, and other social hierarchies but demanding a democratic reform of the education system. Why today do US student movements appear so far behind in response to this global crisis of education?

There have, in fact, been significant student protests in the U.S. in recent years that have not received widespread attention. The most important of these are the student movements to protest raises in tuition in the public university system in the state of California. Tuition in the University of California system had risen gradually to double over the course of a decade but the sudden additional increase of 32% in November 2009 set off the student protests. In the largest and most widespread actions on US campuses since the 1970s, students occupied university buildings and mounted demonstrations.

The primary focus of the California students has been the social inequality created by higher tuition rates and lower funding of the university as a whole. The poor are obviously the first and most severely affected by the changes. The widening class division, the students insistently point out, corresponds closely to racial divisions, since black and Latino students constitute a large portion of those most affected by the higher tuition fees.

The modest successes in the project to open university education to a wider population in a previous era are being gradually reversed.  For the past 30 years, explains Christopher Newfield, professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, “the public universities, which most US students attend, have been systematically underfunded, restricting all educational gains to the top quarter of students by income and destroying the country’s previous global advantage in educational attainment.”

The California student movement has been significant but not nearly as intense, widespread, or sustained as its counterparts in Europe. One obvious reason for this difference is that changes in the US university have been more gradual and smaller. Tuition at public universities has long been higher in the US than in most of Europe and recent increases have been relatively modest. The 32% increase in California in 2009 is dwarfed by the proposed increase in Britain of nearly 300%. A second factor that could contribute to less student protest in the United States is that university conditions are not unified at the national level. Public university funding and tuition rates vary widely in different states and the extensive system of private universities creates even more significant variation.

The most significant reason for less student activism in the United States, however, may derive from a much deeper national condition. The social value placed on education for all, especially higher education, has declined dramatically. This is certainly true for other countries as well but the fall has been more precipitous in the United States. Student politics can only gain a powerful voice when university education is a social priority.

Consider, in contrast, the US government response to the “Sputnik crisis.” Within the frame of cold war logic, the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite was considered a challenge to US security and its position in the global system. In response the United States substantially increased university funding, especially in science and technology. The mission was not limited to advanced scientific training or to military advances but rather spread though all levels of the education system, with widespread and varied consequences. Even Donna Haraway, the pioneering feminist theorist, often refers to herself as a “child of Sputnik.”

The increase of knowledge and intelligence across society was a national priority. Mass education advances contributed directly to the economic growth of the US economy. And furthermore, in the context of this educational project, the student protests of the 1960s and 70s found a loud voice in national debates.

Whereas one can say that the launch of Sputnik made the United States smarter, the attacks of September 11th, perceived as the primary challenge to the national position in this period, only made the country more stupid. The “war on terror” has given priority only to the most limited military and technological knowledges and the idiocy of security dominates public discourse. In this atmosphere arguments for advances in mass public education as well as student demands for equal and open access to the university carry little weight.

The importance of mass education for economic development is no less today than it was 50 years ago, but the economic significance of the fields of education have changed. Along with a wide range of economists, Toni Negri and I argue that in recent decades the dominant sector of the economy has shifted from industrial production to what we call biopolitical production, la production de l’homme par l’homme, involving the creation of ideas, images, code, affects, and other immaterial goods. If this is true, then the mass education of engineers and scientists is no longer the primary key to economic competitiveness. In the biopolitical economy mass intelligence – even and especially linguistic, conceptual, and social capacities – are what drive economic innovation.

University policies throughout the world have not kept pace with these changes. The private money that universities solicit to compensate for the decline in public funding is dedicated overwhelmingly to technical and scientific fields. The human sciences, which are increasingly relevant in the biopolitical economy, are deprived of funds and wither. In this case the student demands actually point in the direction of economic prosperity. The current student protests thus reconfirm a general rule of politics, that social struggles proceed and prefigure social development.

I am generally skeptical about laments of the decline of American civilization. In fact, I foresee the loss of military dominance heralding a much more dynamic and creative period of US social development. But the failure to make mass education at all levels a social priority is certainly one factor indicative of decline. And I interpret the relative calm of US campuses in face of economic crisis and cuts as a symptom of that problem.

* Published in Libération 02/12/210




Comments are closed.