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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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In the 1950s and 1960s the cutting edge of the economy was electronics-based. The Pentagon was a natural way to steal money from the taxpayers, making them think they're being protected from the Russians or somebody, and to direct it to eventual corporate profits. That was done very effectively. It includes computers, the Internet, the IT revolution. In fact most of the modern economy comes from that. In more recent years, the economy is becoming more biology based. Therefore state funding is shifting. Fifty years ago, if you looked around MIT, you found small electronics startups from the faculty. They were drawing on Pentagon funding for research, and if they were successful, they were bought up by major corporations. Those of you who know something about the high-tech economy will know that that's the famous Route 128. That was 50 years ago. Now, if you go around the campus, the startups are biology based, and the same process continues. The genetic engineering, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and the big buildings going up are Novartis and so on. That's the way the so-called free enterprise economy works. There's also been a shift to more short-term applied work. The Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health are concerned with the long-term future of the advanced economy. In contrast to a business firm, it typically wants something that it can use — it can use and not its competitors, and tomorrow. I don't actually know of a careful study, but it seems pretty clear that the shift toward corporate funding is leading towards more short-term applied research and less exploration of what might turn out to be interesting and important down the road.

Another consequence of corporate funding is more secrecy. This surprises a lot of people, but during the period of Pentagon funding, there was no secrecy. There was also no security on campus. You may remember this. You walk into the Pentagon-funded labs 24 hours a day, and no cards to stick into things and so on. No secrecy; it was all entirely open. There is secrecy today. A corporation can't compel secrecy, but they can make it very clear that you're not going to get your contract renewed if your work leaks to others. That has happened. In fact, it's lead to some scandals, some big enough to appear on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Outside funding has other effects on the university, unless it's free and unconstrained, observing the Haldane Principle. Indeed, it has been true to a significant degree by funding from the Pentagon and the other national institutions. However, any kind of outside funding [has effects], even keeping to the Haldane Principle, supposing it establishes a teaching or research facility. That kind of automatically shifts the balance of academic activity, and that can threaten the independence and integrity of the institution. And in the case of corporate funding, quite severely.

Corporatization can have considerable influence in other ways. Corporate managers have a duty. They have to focus on profit making and seeking to convert as much of life as possible into commodities. It's not because they're bad people; it's their task. Under Anglo-American law, it's their legal obligation as well. There's a lot to say about this topic, but one element of it concerns the universities and much else. One particular consequence is the focus on what's called efficiency. It's an interesting concept. It's not strictly an economic concept. It has crucial ideological dimensions. If a business reduces personnel, it might become more efficient by standard measures with lower costs. Typically, that shifts the burden to the public, a very familiar phenomenon we see all the time. Costs to the public are not counted, and they're colossal. That's a choice that's not based on economic theory. That's based on an ideological decision, which applies directly to the "business models," as they're called, of the universities. Increasing class-size or employing cheap temporary labor, say graduate students instead of full-time faculty, may look good on a university budget, but there are significant costs. They're transferred and not measured. They're transferred to students and to the society generally as the quality of education, the quality of instruction is lowered.