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Chomsky: Public Education Under Massive Corporate Assault — What's Next?

Converting schools and universities into facilities that produce commodities for the job market, privatizing them, slashing their budgets — do we really want this future?

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We should recall that the great growth period in the economy -- the U.S. economy -- was in the several decades after WWII, commonly called the "Golden Age" by economists. It was substantially fueled by affordable public education and by university research. Affordable public education includes the GI Bill, which provided free education for veterans — and remember, that was a much poorer country than today. Extremely low tuition was found even at private colleges. Actually, I went to an Ivy League college, and it cost $100 a year; that's more now, but it's not that high, it's not 30 or 40,000, you know?

What about university-based research? Well, as I mentioned, that is the core of the modern high-tech economy. That includes computers, the Internet — in fact, the whole IT revolution — and a whole lot more. The dismantling of this system since the 1970s is among the many moves toward a very sharply two-tiered society, a very narrow concentration of wealth and stagnation for most everyone else. It also has direct economic consequences. Take, say, California. What they are doing to the public education system is going to undermine the economy that relies on a skilled work force and creative innovation, Silicon Valley and so on. Well, apart from the enormous human cost of depriving most people of decent educational opportunities, these policies undermine the U.S. competitive capacity. That's very harmful to the mass of the population, but it doesn't matter to the tiny percent of concentrated wealth and power. In fact, in the years since the Powell Memorandum, we've entered into a new stage in state capitalism in which the future just doesn't amount to much. Profit comes increasingly from financial manipulations. The corporate policies are geared toward the short-term profit, and that reduces the concern for loyalty to a firm over a longer stretch. We'll talk about this more tomorrow, but right now let me talk about the consequences for education, which are quite significant.

Suppose, as is increasingly happening not only in the United States, incidentally, that universities are not funded by the state, meaning the general community. So how are the universities going to survive? Universities are parasitic institutions; they don't produce commodities for profit, thankfully. They may one of these days. The funding issue raises many troubling questions, which would not arise if fostering independent thought and inquiry were regarded as a public good, having intrinsic value. That's the traditional ideal of the universities, although there are major efforts to change that. Take Britain. According to the British press, the Arts and Humanities Research Council was just ordered to spend a significant amount of funding on the prime minister's vision for the country. His so-called "Big Society," which means big corporate profits, and the rest look out for themselves. The government produced what they call a clarification of the famous Haldane Principle. That's the century-old principle that barred such government intrusion into academic research. If this stands, which I think is kind of hard to believe, but if it stands, the hand of Big Brother will rest quite heavily on inquiry and innovation in the arts and humanities as the masters of mankind follow the advice of the Pell Memorandum. Of course, defending academic freedom in ways that would receive nods of approval from Those-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, borrowing my grandchildren's rhetoric. Cameron's Britain is seeking to take the lead on the assault on public education. The rest of the Western world is not very far behind. In some ways the U.S. is ahead.

More generally, in a corporate-run culture, the traditional ideal of free and independent thought may be given lip service, but other values tend to rank higher. Defending authentic institutional freedom is no small task. However, it is not hopeless by any means. I'll talk about the case I know best, at my own university. It is a very striking case, because of the nature of its funding. Technically, it's a private university, but it has vast state funding, overwhelming, particularly since the Second World War. When I adjoined the faculty over 55 years ago, there were military labs. Since then, they've been technically severed. The academic programs, too, at that time, the 1950s, were almost entirely funded by the Pentagon. Under student pressure in the time of troubles, the 1960s, there were protests about this and calls for investigation. A faculty-student commission was formed in 1969 to investigate the matter. I was a member, thanks to student pressure. The commission was interesting. It found that despite the funding source, the Pentagon, almost the entire academic program, there was no military-related work on campus, except in the sense that virtually anything can have some military application. Actually, there was an exception to this, the political science department, [which] was deeply engaged in the Vietnam War under the guise of peace research. Since that time, Pentagon funding has been declining, and funding from health-related state institutions — National Institute of Health and so on — that's been increasing. There's a reason for that. It's reflecting changes in the economy.