Posts Tagged Occupy movement

Criticality and the Rebirth of the Public Sphere

Tonight I attended a talk by University of Chicago Professor Bernard Harcourt at the Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago.  His talk was part of the Graham School of Continuing Studies Great Conversations seminar series.  The subject of his talk was Freedom and Education–the seminar series theme for this quarter–and he took the opportunity to explore more fully several themes in his most recent book The Illusion of Free Markets as he walked the audience through his understanding of what the terms “freedom” and “education” meant to him as well as how they were inter-related.

Providing the audience a clear outline to his presentation, Professor Harcourt began by outlining three theoretical points that he believed were central to any discussion of freedom and education.  The first was that “freedom” as the term is currently used is deliberately ambiguous.  This ambiguity allows economists to use the phrase “free market” when (in Harcourt’s view) “in the economic realm freedom has no role.”  He argued that in order for freedom to have  a meaning the term needed to be replaced by something more precise.  His second point involved the term “education,” which he also felt to be hopelessly imprecise in both the academic realm as well as our everyday lives.  He contended that “we need to be critical of the claim that education makes us free” as it could and often is used as a tool of oppression.  The primary example he provided the audience was an anecdote involving his son’s English assignment to write about a moment where he had “matured” or grown from “idealism” to “reality.”  Harcourt saw this is as the first of many attempts by the educational system to circumscribe not simply the content of education but how that very concept was understood (i.e. a reality principle to the unreasonable id of childish creativity).  Harcourt’s final theoretical observation involved the phrase “free speech.”  In his view “all speech is costly,” at the very least requiring money for a venue or external support from a school or organization to grant it credibility and (thereby) an audience.

Having addressed his theoretical points, Harcourt moved on to examine what he saw as three key historical moments relevant to the topic of freedom and education in the 21st century.  The first of these was the “corporatization of Higher Education,” a topic that I have written about on this blog several times, typically in relation to Adjunct Labor.  To this phenomenon he linked the expansion of free online courses (referred to now as MOOCS or Massive Online Open Courses), which are increasingly being relied upon by students who could not afford the cost of rising college tuition.  The final historical moment he referred to was the emergence of the Occupy movement whose teach-ins and recent Peoples Summit offered another venue for public learning that was dependent neither on the traditional college campus or online course portal.

These events combined with the theoretical issues Harcourt examined at the beginning of his talk all seemed to point (in his view) to a “political reawakening” in the United States and the re-emergence of a truly public sphere.  The value of both developments, according to Harcourt, was in their potential to awaken “criticality” in the general populace.  What he meant by that term was something analogous to what Liberal Arts scholars have traditionally called “critical thinking.”  Namely, the ability to look at things as they are and imagine them in a different way.  It also involves in Harcourt’s view the ability to retain a radical openness that seeks to ask the right questions as much find the answers to our current dilemmas.

Harcourt’s talk was cogent and powerfully delivered.  The question and answer period, however, showed that the audience was hungry for more direction.  We are all peering into the crystal ball that is the future right now and everyone (including Harcourt) is slightly baffled by what they are seeing.  Sitting on the edge of action, one can be forgiven for being impatient.  I know I am.  But the message of the evening seemed to be pay attention and keep an open mind.  And make sure to share what’s on your mind with other thinkers in the public square.

If you need a public square to share your thoughts and live in Chicago, there are many places you can occupy your mind.  One is at the numerous teach-ins and general assemblies held by Occupy Chicago.  Another is the never dull “playground for people who think”–the College of Complexes–at which I am a regular.  Stop by at both.  All are welcome.  Just bring an open mind.

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March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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