What Are We Defending When We Defend Public Higher Education?: Or, How Frances Fox Piven Blew My Mind a Little Bit

This was a question that came up frequently during the Defending Public Higher Ed Conference at the Graduate Center earlier this month. Let’s linger on it a bit. What does higher education do that is worth defending?

There were many thoughtful answers at the conference, including from scholars like Michelle Fine who advised us to reclaim the idea of education as a public good, something that doesn’t just empower a few individuals to succeed in the new economy, but is part of a collective, democratic endeavor to create a more equitable society.

Sounds great to me. Where do I sign up?

A different kind of answer (though it is really more of a question, which is why it is so brilliant) came from GC Professor Frances Fox Piven who, I have to say, blew my mind a little bit. In remarks that seemed to come off the top of her head, Piven explained how the global economy, which has spawned a new kind of predatory capitalism, has changed her thinking about the role of education in society. “We used to think,” she explained, “the ruling class wanted to use education to reproduce the class structure. Now I’m not sure they’re interested in reproducing anything.” Continue reading

Stanley Aronowitz and Gary Rhoades Cage Match: Does Higher Ed Need to ‘Play the Metrics Game’?

Okay so there wasn’t an actual cage match between Gary Rhoades (of the University of AZ) and Stanley Aronowitz (of CUNY) at the Defending Public Higher Ed Conference at the Graduate Center on October 7. But there were genuine disagreements and a rich debate among presenters and attendees about the best way to save public higher ed from disinvestment and privatization.

I’m going to be discussing this conference in the next couple of blog posts. I’m not writing this only for CUNY folks though. I believe these issues are broadly relevant to higher education.

The main speaker of the day was Gary Rhoades, co-author of Academic Capitalism and the New Economy. I liked his address a lot, even though I don’t think he is right about everything. His most important point was that progressive educators should provide a consistent counter discourse to the one beloved by the Gates, Walton and Lumina foundations. The plutocrat narrative, of course, blames teachers and their unions for the so-called failure of public ed and uses testing and other “accountability” regimes as the scientific justification for turning schools, including colleges and universities, over to CEOs. Continue reading

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

When I enrolled in the PhD Program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center to study Composition and Rhetoric, I was idealistic about the future of the discipline and my own place in it. I believed that Comp and Rhet (as I came to call it) was asking crucial questions that were central to the mission of higher education in America. I still believe that. But, after working in the field in a number of full-time and part-time positions over several years, my idealism has turned to despair at what I now regard as Composition’s great shame. It has left me to doubt that there is a place in the field for me and for many others like me. Continue reading

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