- Higher Education and the Plague of Authoritarianism
History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.—H.G. Wells
Higher education in our politically desperate age is threatened by a legacy that it does not dare to name and that inheritance has an eerie resonance with an authoritarian past that asserts itself, in part, with growing belief among the American public that education is "bad for America" and that it is at odds with Trump's vision of making America great again (Riotta 2017). The Trump administration needs education to fail in a very particular way. Hostile to its role as a public good and democratic sphere, it is attempting to reshape education according to the market-driven logic of neoliberalism with its emphasis on privatization, commodification, deregulation, fear, and managerialism.1 In this reactionary view, education is only defined in economic terms and is beholden to the assumption that only corporations and market driven interests have the sole right to define both the purpose of education and what type of education is needed by students. Under such circumstances, higher education is threatened for its potential role as a public sphere capable of educating students as informed, critical thinkers capable of not only holding power accountable but also fulfilling the role of critical agents who can act against injustice and resist diverse forms of oppression.
Byung-Chul Han has argued that "every age has its signature afflictions" and in this case the current historical moment is notable for its embrace of a culture of unfocused fear, its war on youth, its attack on the welfare state, its devaluation of public goods, and its ongoing assault higher education (2015, 1). The criminogenic machinery of power has now reached the highest levels of the U.S. government and in doing so it is changing not just the language [End Page 157] of educational reform, but also making it difficult for faculty and students to resist their own erasure from modes of self-governance and a critical education. New forms of racist discrimination, unbridled commodification, and exclusion rooted in a retreat from ethics, the social imagination, and democracy itself weakens the role higher education might take in an age of increasing tyranny. Against the force of a highly militarized mode of casino capitalism in which violence and a resurgence of white supremacy are at the center of power, higher education is being weakened in its ability to resist the authoritarian machinery of social death now shaping American society. The modern loss of faith in the merging of education and democracy needs to be reclaimed, but that will only happen if the long legacy of struggle over education is once again brought to life as part of a more comprehensive understanding of education being central to politics itself.
Many of the great peace activists of the 20th century extending from W.E. B. Dubois and Paulo Freire to Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr. shared a passion for education not as a methodology but as a democratic project. They emphasized producing individuals who believed in education as both a public good and a practice of freedom. For them, education was a moral and political practice whose goal was to inspire and energize people to assume a degree of civic courage, social responsibility, and informed agency. Refusing to view education as neutral or reducing it to the instrumental and mercenary practice of training, they sought to reclaim education as part of a wider struggle to deepen and extend the values, social relations, and institutions of a radical democracy.
They argued passionately that education could not be removed from the demand for justice and progressive social change. They understood that tyranny and authoritarianism are not just the product of state violence and repression, but also thrive on popular docility, mass apathy, and a flight from moral responsibility. Each wrote during times of momentous political revolutions when democracy was under siege. In doing so, they recognized the value of and made real a moment of truth about education and its ability to transform how people understood themselves, their relations to others, and the larger world. In the face...