The Corporate Crushing of the Intellectual Life

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by Neil Godfrey

Universities have changed, and not for the better. Once a liberal arts or humanities education was prized as the gateway to learning how to think, how to live, to understanding how the world works. It was once impossible to enter a humanities field without undertaking at least a year’s course in a foreign language. Literature, history, sociology classes abounded. Political debates were everywhere one looked across campuses. Engineering students had a reputation for being politically conservative and looking down on the humanities students because the latter were seen as trouble-makers. But they, too, could be caught up in the debates. And the questioning and learning that took place both inside and outside the classrooms spilled over into the wider communities with demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The Beatles’ song Revolution played across the main grounds where tents were set up and students and staff engaged in calls for restrictions to be removed from free speech and for greater participation of students in administration. Civil rights, feminism, racism and participatory democracy were hot topics of talk and action. Corporate power and its hold over conservative governments in the pockets of mining interests were openly challenged.

Then the corporations and their political proxies fought back.

“In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.”

(That’s from a 2012 article by Debra Leigh Scott — see below — that was recently recycled on Alternet and reminded me of this major challenge we face today.)

That was in the United States. It appears similar action has been underway in other Western countries.

Today, a university is lucky if it has any history courses at all. Literature? What good is that for a job? French, German, Russian? If you want to study a foreign language then choose one that is going to help your business career: Japanese or Mandarin.

And for god’s sake make the universities profitable. Why should the public purse fund them? Make the students pay. That’ll make sure they keep their heads down doing a practical course that will enable them to get a good job as soon as possible so they can pay off their debt. There’ll be no time or interest in discussing wider social issues if they are all studying a business or engineering courses.

Let the universities attract money from corporations by promising them some material return on their investments.

In the Soviet Union dissident professors would be sent to labour camps for re-education. Western corporations have removed the threat of the intellectuals by other means of “manufacturing consent” for the status quo.

Mass public education began in Germany and Britain as a means of preparing a labour force for the factories and soldiers for the armies in a new world requiring literacy along with social compliance. The pressure has always been on schools to train children in useful, practical subjects so they can fill the job requirements of business. Now the universities have been very largely tamed, too.

For five blows that have been inflicted by the corporate world on at least the United States universities, see

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

(Reposted here)



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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “The Corporate Crushing of the Intellectual Life”

  1. It seems that unis esp in the US have become v illiberal places as well as regards free speech as a result of IYI [intellectualyetidiot] reaction to perceived ” right wing creep”

    1. When was the last time you were on a university campus? I think you are reacting to certain right-wing narratives. My oldest is in a liberal arts college (graduates next year). My youngest is at UCLA. Both places are very liberal (in a good way).

  2. When anyone asked why I was getting a liberal arts degree (in history, of all things!) I would say, “To get an education.” Even as far back as the 1980s most had forgotten what that even meant.

    I can’t imagine trying to figure out the world from a vocational-tech perspective. It must be a huge, bewildering mystery, which in itself may explain why so many people believe in conspiracy theories.

  3. Somehow universities have jettisoned the liberal arts while simultaneously gaining the reputation of being extreme liberal bastions – the right wing get to have its cake & eat it too.

    1. Which universities do you have in mind? Are there ANY exceptions? Are you in college? Do you have children in college, or are you just reacting to what you other people say?

      It is pretty clear to me that certain universities (e.g., University of Chicago) have been co-opted by right wing interests and have become illiberal. It is also clear that other universities have succumbed to the idea that college is supposed to be about the job that comes after you graduate, but my experience with my kids’ colleges is that neither of these things are true about their schools.

      So let’s stop clutching our pearls and inquire farther.

  4. I don’t see anything wrong with studying Mandarin or Japanese. The literature in Japanese is equal to, and that in Chinese more extensive than, that of any European language.

    Of course only a handful of people will learn the languages to the level at which they can red the literature, but that goes for French, German, and Russian as well.

    More damaging is the attack on politically incorrect science.

  5. Oh my gods! I have just returned from visiting the local university where I was checking out the community/student notice-boards for any interesting clubs or meetings under way. Some years back I saw a notice for something calling itself the Marxist Moratorium Reading Group and it led me to enjoyable and stimulating times with interesting company and other activities. But years later and what do I find? All the notice boards are controlled, some are even behind glass doors that are locked. Obviously in order for a notice to be posted nowadays one has to obtain approval from some governing body.

    What happened to the old notice boards chock full of messy bits of paper alerting readers to all sorts of things? Did someone in authority say they “looked messy” and “so something had to be done”?

    I think now of the many types of groups and meetings that surely now have no place to advertise for free. Or maybe I should think that such groups no longer exist?

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