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