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December 2, 2013

The Eliminative Turn in Education: An Interview with David Blacker

C. Derick Varn:

David Blacker studied at the University of Texas and holds degrees in philosophy and education from the University of Illinois. He is currently Professor of philosophy of education and Director of Legal Studies at the University of Delaware (USA). His books include Dying to Teach: The Educator's Search for Immortality (Columbia University Teachers College), Democratic Education Stretched Thin: How Complexity Challenges a Liberal Ideal (SUNY), a US-state specific book series on law, ethics and education for education students. His most recent book is The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books, forthcoming this December). His is now working on a project concerning Spinoza and the idea of permaculture. Before becoming corrupted by the comforts of academia, he worked at the (sadly) now-defunct Guardian newspaper ("an Independent Radical Newsweekly") in New York City.

What has led to both the increase in credentialization in higher education and the elimination of much of the funding of higher ed at the same time? And why is the political economy of education so little discussed directly?

These questions admit several layers of response, concentric causal circles converging on the contemporary trends. Let me take the funding question first. In the United States, the immediate cause of the funding crisis in higher education, particularly public higher education, is the decades-'long withdrawal of the historic commitment to these institutions by state and local governments. In this sense, U.S. higher education has been a leading edge of austerity avant la lettre, well before opposition to "austerity" became a rallying cry of dissent. A generation or two ago, our leading public universities received most of their operating funds from the public coffers. Now at the marquee universities, the level of such funding has dwindled to the single digits. For example, the University of Virginia--long a symbol of American public education because of its Jeffersonian origins--now receives around 6% of its budget via public funds. A mere 6%! At this point it is fair to ask, in what sense are our "public universities" actually public anymore?

A second layer of answer to the funding question has to do with shifting policy justifications for state support of education that reflect general movements in ideology. While one must be careful to guard against a narrative of decline that implies some kind of golden age of public spiritedness, there was a certain degree of liberal idealism present in the nineteenth-century founding of American public universities qua "land grant" institutions charged with contributing to the public good. There has at times been a strong sense that there is a collective interest in maintaining a strong network of such institutions, a palpable sense that everyone benefits from them. Now, however, a relatively narrow and crabbed economism holds sway that fails to honor the "public good" nature of these institutions and instead regards them mainly as private benefits exclusive to the individuals involved in them. At a collective level they are at best "good for business" and economic development; in particular their educational side is seen as a pipeline for a shrinking elite corporate workforce. These expensive institutions are regarded as justified insofar as they add value to "human capital" for employers and also as in effect off-site research and development centers for corporations, particularly those in the high tech sectors. So at the aggregate level, education is viewed as a literal "investment."

Posted by Jim Zellmer at December 2, 2013 12:46 AM
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