Category Archives: education

City of Lights

I’m spending a week in Turin, Italy, teaching a short seminar on “American Disasters” in the M.A. course at the Università di Torino.  Here’s a copy of the syllabus.

During the evenings, I’ve been walking the city.  It’s a truly beautiful place, filled with nineteenth century arches and arcades.  At this time of year, the city is also full of light displays.  Here’s a brief video of the city of lights:


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Apartheid in Arizona

The legislature in Arizona recently passed House Bill 2281. This document bans ethnic studies courses which promote race consciousness from public schools.  This law of course comes on the heels of the draconian new immigration law SB 1070.  It’s worth thinking about the relation between these two laws.

Education bill 2281 specifically prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: a) promote the overthrow of the United States government; b) promote resentment toward a race or class of people; c) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; d) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The ideology here of course is complete objectivity in the classroom.  Supporters of this legislator are marching in lockstep with Daniel Horowitz, whose campaigns with Students for Academic Freedom have long blasted any form of politicization.  As my colleague Malini Johar Schueller and I have argued in Dangerous Professors, this spurious notion of objectivity obscures the inherent politicization of dominant established curricula and attempts to roll back the (relatively slight) gains made by post-1960s social movements.

In fact, the explicit target of the legislation is the Mexican American Studies Department of the Tucson Unified School District.  According to the department’s website, the education curriculum is designed to a) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice; b) advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the Mexican American/Chicano cultural and historical experience.

House Bill 2281 is a transparent attempt to clamp down on forces of ideological opposition within Arizona, a necessary counterpart to SB 1070.  Their symbiotic nature is made particularly evident when the bills are compared to similar bans enacted elsewhere.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, for example, the ruling regime sought to silence critics of the status quo by banning them.  Coupled with lynching, torture, and summary execution, the practice of banning was a key instrument of apartheid-era policy.

The banning of organizations or individuals was originally authorized in South Africa by the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, and subsequently by the Internal Security Act of 1982.  The definition of communism in these laws was extremely broad, including any activity allegedly promoting civil disturbances or disorder, promoting industrial, social, political, or economic change in the country, and encouraging hostility between whites and nonwhites so as to promote change or revolution.  The main organizations banned under these laws were the Communist Party of South Africa, the African National Congress, and the Pan-African Congress.

More than 2,000 people were banned in South Africa from 1950 to 1990.  Once a person was labeled a threat to security and public order, s/he essentially became a public nonentity.  S/he would be confined to her or his home, would not be allowed to meet with more than one person at a time (other than family members), to hold any offices in any organization, to speak publicly or to write for any publication.  Banned persons were also barred from entering particular areas, buildings, and institutions, including law courts, schools, and newspaper offices.

The banning of ethnic studies departments in Arizona is an integral part of the reactionary program being advanced by the Right in the state.  As the South African parallel suggests, the silencing of dissenting voices is just as essential to authoritarian hegemony as more obviously repressive forms of state power such as ethnic profiling in policing.

This assault on civil liberties and educational democracy needs to be taken just as seriously – and challenged just as ardently – as the state’s oppressive immigration legislation has been.

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My Recession

New York State Governor David Patterson is trying to impose furloughs on 100,000 state workers.  I’m one of them.  The fiscal crisis of the state is getting very personal!

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn has just ruled that Patterson and the Albany lawmakers who went along with his plan to punish what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the left hand of the state” – municipal employees like teachers who maintain the social democratic wing of the state – cannot carry their plan forward until he rules on union lawsuits that challenge this move.

According to Kahn, unions have successfully demonstrated that a permanent 20 percent loss in wages or salaries would constitute irreparable harm.  This is an incredibly important decision since it prevents New York from establishing a precedent similar to the horrendous one in California.

But the news isn’t all bread and roses.  Thousands of employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority are still going to lose their jobs, for example.  This isn’t just pain for MTA employees,  It will also mean that more of the booths at subway stations become vacant, making the subway system more dangerous and dysfunctional.  But then the rich in NYC probably don’t use the subway anyway.

In other local news, according to an article in the New York Times, someone paid nearly $29 million dollars for a painting of the U.S. flag by Jasper Johns.  Wonder why this individual didn’t manifest her or his patriotism by using that money to support the working people who keep this country going?  Wonder why the governor won’t raise taxes on people who have $29 million dollars at their disposal for a painting.

My union, the Professional Staff Congress, was one of four public-employee unions that brought the suit to stop Patterson and the legislature from putting us on furlough.  What a great victory for solidarity and collective resistance!

Here’s a copy of the judge’s restraining order.

And here’s to stopping the ravenous zombies who are destroying the country and the planet from eating all our brains!

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The Left Hand of the State

In “Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market,” the late great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discusses the social suffering experienced by teachers, social workers, and other members of what he calls the left hand of the state: the “agents of the so-called spending ministries which are the trace, within the state, of the social struggles of the past.”  The left hand of the state is opposed to the technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, the public and private banks.  Today, the powerful right hand of the state no longer seems bent on amputating the left hand.

This battle between the two wings of the state was particularly apparent this week.  In Rhode Island, state officials fired the entire teaching staff of a school that had been judged to be failing.  The right hand brings the ax down on the left.  This is part of the “accountability” agenda advanced by the Republicans since “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB).  Particularly disturbing, however, is the fact that this decision was publicly supported by President Obama and the Democrats.  In fact, the action was partially a product of his administration’s wholesale embrace of NCLB.  The school in question was to be reconfigured under the guidelines of an Obama administration School Improvement Grant, which mandated that poorly performing schools should be transformed by a) extending instructional hours; b) converting them to charter schools; c) closing them entirely; or d) replacing the principal and half of the staff.  The local school board had been pursuing the first option, but when the teachers’ union demanded higher wages for increased instruction time, the board broke off negotiations and shut down the school.  NCLB=No Teacher Left Employed.

There has been some resistance to this punitive agenda of late.  On Thursday, a national day of action in defense of public education saw demonstrations take place across the country.  Here’s a map of actions.  My union, the Professional Staff Congress, took part.  I was tied up with a job search, unfortunately, and so don’t have any pix.  But the PSC recently produced a great brochure that makes some strong arguments against proposed cuts to higher education in NY.  And here’s an interesting video meditation by UC Berkeley activists on the student movement:

I’ll give Bourdieu the last word: “Now that the great utopias of the 19th century have revealed all their perversion, it is urgent to create the conditions for a collective effort to reconstruct a universe of realist ideals, capable of mobilizing people’s will without mystifying their consciousness.”

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New classes

I finally have my new classes for the spring semester ready.

One, which I’ll be teaching at the Graduate Center, focuses on racial formation in modern Britain.  The course begins with Shakespeare’s representation of the New World in The Tempest, continues with texts written during the eras of abolition and high imperialism in the 19th century, and closes by looking at racial formation in post-1945 Britain.  Here’s the syllabus.

The other class, for undergraduates, focuses on imperial and anti-colonial texts of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The idea here is to give these students some perspective on current U.S. imperial culture using the lens of preceding representations of empire, as well as texts that represented the multifarious damages wrought by imperialism.  Here’s the SYLLABUS for this course.

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Against Enclosure of the Academic Commons


Yesterday I participated in a panel at the annual Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia.  The panel, organized by the Graduate Student Caucus, was entitled “Academic Business” and focused on the creeping corporatization of academia in recent decades.  On the panel along with me were Jean Howard, professor of English at Columbia University, John Guillory of NYU, and Colleen Lye of the University of California-Berkeley (who read a paper sent in by Chris Newfield of UC-Santa Barbara).  In this, my first attempt at almost-live blogging, I record participants’ comments.

Jean Howard kicked the session off by offering a broad definition of “corporatization” as the state in which bottom-line economic decisions increasingly determine all aspects of academic life.  She warned, however, that the university is not a seamless entity, and that different branches are differentially impacted by corporatization.  She also argued that the university in the U.S. has never not been linked to business.  Having said that, though, she did acknowledge that significant changes have taken place over the last three decades.  Speaking from her experience at Columbia, she described how the university’s administrators have taken over more and more institutional governance from the faculty.  At CU, for example, the Provost, who is elected by the faculty, no longer controls the budget.  Howard also described moves to make faculty more expendable as a crucial element of corporatization, as well as an embrace of the model of students as consumers.  Finally, Howard described the saturation of the university by assessment and accountability exercises.

These shifts, Howard noted, are not all entirely negative.  Governance is increasingly transparent, which means more work for faculty but also means that old-boy networks have less purchase on faculty life than in previous times.  Nonetheless, money-making schemes are increasingly central to university life, Howard acknowledged, and professional schools such as Business, Law, and Health Sciences are increasingly autonomous from the university itself, which means a significant siphoning of funds off from the humanities.  Solid points, all of these, but not particularly new for anyone familiar with work such as Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education or Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades’ Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education.

John Guillory’s presentation similarly focused on defining the corporatization of academia, but offered more speculative comments in addition.  Guillory began by talking about growth for growth’s sake, and accumulation of endowment funds simply for the sake of accumulation, and the enhancement of the university’s reputation through star hires as some of the determining traits of academic corporatization.  Guillory went on to talk about how decisions made by administrators are driven by their perceptions of the value of the work done and degrees offered by the university.  This led him to pose a question central to his presentation: what is the basis for funding graduate programs?  Aside from the academic labor performed by graduate employees, prestige and notions of the social good justify Ph.D. programs, Guillory argued.  If these latter, more intangible factors are the determining ones behind Ph.D. programs, Guillory suggested, graduate programs funded by extracting casual labor are not legitimate.  Guillory also mentioned the recent Mellon report on graduate education, which, he suggested, underlined the need for graduate programs to move to fully funded programs or shut down.

After Guillory concluded, Colleen Lye read Chris Newfield’s paper.  Newfield began by arguing that what he called the “American Funding Model” for higher education is rife with contradictions: high tuition at public universities creates the feeling of an unsustainable education bubble, leading to public ire against funding of higher ed.  Newfield argued that only recourse is to fix the funding model through full public funding of universities.  To bring this about, the humanities need to raise their voice about the global role of the university.  Newfield cited the important role of the global justice movement in defending public infrastructure, and suggested that the humanities should join the chorus in protecting the academic commons.  The goal, Newfield argued, should be to democratize the university and to insure its openness.  In order to bring this about, the humanities need to cultivate stronger links to the human rights and justice discourses of the global justice movement.  There is a strong majoritarian revolt taking place around the planet against neoliberalism, Newfield reminded us, and the U.S. academy needs to join it more decisively.

Newfield also argued that the humanities need to stress their role in bringing about social innovation.  The perception that innovation is purely a technological matter is completely incorrect, Newfield stated.  Finally, Newfield suggested that progressive academics need to challenge the corollary perception that the humanities are a drain on university budgets largely supported by research in the sciences and engineering.  Rehearsing some of the trenchant arguments he lays out at greater length in Unmaking the Public University, Newfield argued that humanities teaching actually supports research-intensive fields economically rather than vice versa. According to Irenas Xero bookkeeper in North Shore,  budgeting and cross-subsidies are now a major political issue, and academics need to challenge corporatizing managers’ claims that the humanities are a drag on collective resources.  Newfield wrapped up by suggesting that this movement for economic transparency within the university needs to work with the global justice movement-affiliated stream in order to transform the university.

My own comments, archived in the Talks section of this website, discussed the history of my own institution – City University of New York – as particularly symptomatic of attacks on the vision of an egalitarian and open university system in the U.S.  I looked in particular detail at the way in which the fiscal crisis of NYC during the 1970s was used to dismantle CUNY’s free tuition, open admissions model, which was perceived by urban and national elites as threatening to create a college-educated and hence dangerous proletariat.  After tracing this history, I suggested that we can take three steps to help realize the emanicipatory vision that CUNY once (and to a certain extent still) incarnated: devote our academic labor to ideological work on education as a human right; organize, particularly through progressive, democratic academic unions that struggle not simply for bread-and-butter issues but also for a broader vision of the university as a site for fostering broader forms of social justice; catalyze autonomous initiatives that pressure academic managers and state legislatures through direct action.

The question and answer session that followed was lively, bringing up issues such as how to protect the autonomy of the university while also making it more transparent and socially engaged, how to get students and professor more engaged in movements in defense of the public university, and how to articulate notions of the social good to the university more effectively after the culture wars and the War on Terror.

After the Q&A, I spoke with some UCa grad students who told me about the launch of a new online journal called Reclamations devoted to democratizing the university.  Other websites worth watching in this regard include Chris Newfield’s blog, Remaking the University, and, for news of developments in the very active European student movement, the Italian site Uniriot.

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Pedagogy of the Oppressors

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the search for a high school for my daughter in the New York City area.  Unfortunately I haven’t chronicled this entire experience, but I will be including selected vignettes of adventures we’ve had over the last four months or so of the school search in order to capture reflections on this harrowing experience.

I want to document this because it has been by far the most intense and unpleasant ordeal I’ve undergone while living in New York City – which is not exactly an easy place to live at the best of times.  In fact, according to a recent survey, NYC ranks last among the many states in the U.S. in terms of happiness.  But then perhaps happiness is overrated.  There are certainly a lot of bizarre and sometimes quite amusing elements mixed into the NYC school search ordeal.  Moreover, although I’m sure that this experience is highly anomalous, as a limit case I suspect it has quite a lot to reveal about the extreme circumstances to which youths are increasingly subjected in the precarious world we currently inhabit.

At any rate, last night we attended a reception for a NJ-based boarding school at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel here in NYC.  We’re looking at boarding schools as well as private and public schools in NYC.  Since public high schools in the city are now so selective, I want to make sure that my daughter gets accepted somewhere and so I’m applying almost everywhere (at least that’s how it often feels).  Apparently boarding schools have a lot more financial aid to give, and so we’ve been encouraged to apply there as well as to so-called day schools in the city.

There also seems to be a trend towards boarding schools among young people in the city.  My daughter, like most of her friends, expressed interest in going away to one, the idea being that as an only child she pines for the company of an extended network of siblings, something she’s likely to find at a boarding school, in theory at least.  I think it’s also part of the desire to grow up more quickly, to have the teen equivalent of a kind of glamorous Carrie Bradshaw cosmopolitan life.

The reception at the Waldorf Astoria certainly seemed to promise an experience along those lines.  The hotel itself was straight out of an Edith Wharton novel.  Most of the people there seemed like movie stars or prostitutes or both.  I half expected to see Bono and Jeffrey Sachs smoozing with Angelina Jolie in an alcove of the lobby.  I held onto my daughter’s arm very tightly.

The young people and parents who turned up for the reception also all seemed very urbane, and I was struck by the very high percentage of African-American families in attendance.  The reception was held in “Peacock Alley,” which felt just about gilded enough.  Rather ironic given the parlous state of the U.S. economy today.

Once school officials began making presentations, though, the hollowness of private school rhetoric began to show through this gilded facade.  The head of the school talked a lot about “tangible signs of progress” at the school, by which he seemed to mean that they have a lot of money and have been throwing up a lot of buildings.  As he ceded his place to a string of other school officials and teachers, I was struck by the fact that all the people tapped to speak were Anglo-American, a very unfortunately choice given the predominantly non-white composition of the potential applicant pool.  Why would any of us want to entrust our children to people who seemed not to have thought about the need to integrate their institution and their public face?

The various administrators and teachers who spoke talked about how the school embodied strong values and community.  As my daughter pointed out in a frustrated aside after the reception, this was ridiculous.  All schools have values and community.  What kind of values and community is, of course, the question.

After the administrators held forth, a series of students were invited to speak.  One young couple perhaps gave an unwitting clue to the school’s values.  They mentioned that they went from the school to an elite ivy league university, from whence they went on to work at Lehman Brothers, and now, after being fired when the firm collapsed, work at Goldman Sachs.  The point, I suppose, was to underline the illustrious career trajectory of graduates from the school.  It didn’t seem to have dawned on anyone that these blithe young spirits had come to rest in two of the most piratical institutions in the U.S.  So much for instilling values!

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