Harry Targ :
EDUCATION | Rethinking the university in an age of
educational crisis

Looking back and moving forward.

Smith, Alan, and Mike Seal. 2021. “The Contested Terrain of Critical Pedagogy and Teaching Informal Education in Higher Education.” Image from Diary of a Heartland Radical.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | November 11, 2021

Harry Targ will join Thorne Dreyer to discuss issues raised in this article on Rag Radio, Friday, November 12, 2-3 p.m. (CT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and will be streamed live at KOOP.org. The podcast of the show can be listened to anytime here.


The assault on academic freedom and autonomy by right-wing political forces has been escalating in recent months. At the University of North Carolina, the governing boards and a major donor interfered in the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Vaccination and mask mandates have been suppressed at colleges in red states around the country. Presidential searches at the University of South Carolina, Fayetteville State University, and elsewhere were hijacked to insert political allies of governing boards. Recent events at the University of Florida have raised those problems to a new level. The time for strategizing and threading needles is over. This is an all-out assault, and faculty members are now being enlisted in the effort to dismantle our representative democracy.” — Holden Thorp, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 1, 2021

Political debates today increasingly involve the character of higher education. Current controversies have emerged over the teaching of critical aspects of American history, such as those dealing with race, class, gender, the environment, and the United States’ role in war and foreign intervention. These debates raise questions about higher education and the political agendas of the federal government, state governments, prominent universities themselves, the corporate sector, and particularly powerful economically driven interest groups, such as the Koch Foundation, which wish to restructure the role of faculty, students, and traditional curricula and research, in the 21st century.

Interests served by higher education

In his presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 2000, Robert Perrucci refers to “Galileo’s crime.” He argues that while most claim that Galileo was punished for proposing that the planets moved around the sun, others have pointed out that he was condemned because “he chose to communicate his findings about the earth and the sun, not in Latin, the medium of the educated elite, but in Italian, the public vernacular, parola del popolo,” Robert Perrucci, “Inventing Social Justice: SSSP and the Twenty-First Century,” Social Problems, May, 2001.

This thought, for me, constitutes a parable for the history of higher education as we know it. In my view it is not unfair to suggest that institutions of higher education have always been created and shaped by the interests of the ruling classes and elites in the societies in which they exist. This means they serve to reinforce the economic, political, ideological, and cultural interests of those who create them, fund them, and populate them.

In Robert Paul Wolff ‘s book, The Ideal of the University (1970), the author identifies the historical university as the training ground for theology, literature, and law. In each case, sacred or secular canonical texts were studied with a microscope. Their study was designed to reify and transmit the core knowledge claims, ethics, and laws across generations. Wolff’s description, quoted below and written 50 years ago, about a reality hundreds of years earlier, might still resonate with us today:

Thus, the activity of scholarship is in the first instance a religious and literary activity, directed toward a given corpus of texts, either divine or secular, around which a literature of commentary accumulated. The corpus is finite, clearly defined, growing slowly as each stage in the progress of Western civilization deposited its masterpieces in the Great Tradition. Though the tradition may contain pregnant, emotionally powerful commentaries upon life and men’s affairs, the scholar’s concern is with the textual world, not with the world about which the text speaks.”(Wolff, 5)

Wolff (1970), James Berlin, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, Refiguring College English Studies, (1996), David N. Smith, Who Rules the Universities? An Essay on Class Analysis (1974) as well as others added to this discussion an analysis of how the university changed in the late nineteenth century to serve the needs of rising industrial capitalism in Europe and North America.

The university shifted in the direction of serving new masters.

The university shifted in the direction of serving new masters: from the clerics and judges to the capitalists. Plans were instituted in elite universities to develop “departments,” compartmentalizing knowledge so it could be fashioned for use in research and development; human relations, making the modern corporation more efficient; developing communications, branding, and accounting skills; and developing good citizens. Elite universities initiated the changes that made higher education more compatible with and an instrumentality of modern capitalism. The model then “trickled down” to less prestigious universities, which in the end became even more effective developers and purveyors of knowledge for use in capitalist societies.

Wolff quoted Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system and the target of the student movement in that state in the 1960s, who hinted at this theme of connectedness between certain societal needs, power, and education, and a parallelism between the era of the industrial revolution and the quarter century after World War II:

The American University is currently undergoing its second great transformation. The first occurred during roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the land grant movement and German intellectualism were together bringing extraordinary change. The current transformation will cover roughly the quarter century after World War II. The university is being called upon to educate previously unimagined numbers of students; to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activities with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents. By the end of this period, there will be a truly American university; an institution unique in world history, an institution not looking to other models but serving, itself, as a model for universities in other parts of the globe. (Wolff, 33-34)

For Kerr, the modern “multiversity,” responding to the needs of society as reflected in federal and corporate research funding, was obliged to produce scientists, engineers, and doctors, what we call today the STEM fields. This university, he said, was “a model” for higher education around the world.

During World War II and the Cold War, the modern university began to serve powerful new masters. As Charles Wilson, president of General Electric, advocated in 1944, there was a need to maintain the coalition of forces that defeated fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in Asia, to stave off new threats to U.S. and global capitalism, and to forestall a return to the grim Depression economy of the 1930s. To do that, Wilson said, we needed to increase collaboration between government, particularly the Defense Department, and corporations and universities. This constituted the partnership that did much to secure victory during the war. His vision was referred to as “a permanent war economy.”

Shortly after the war a rationale for this collaboration grew.

Shortly after the war a rationale for this collaboration grew, the threat of international communism. The military, defense-related corporations, and research institutions had a reason to work together: to lobby for dollars, do the research, produce the technologies, train future scientists and engineers for the Cold War, and educate the broader non-technically trained population in and out of the university to accept the basic parameters of the Cold War struggle.

Henry Giroux paraphrased President Eisenhower’s warning of a growing military/industrial complex: “…the conditions for production of violence, the amassing of huge profits by defense industries, and the corruption of government officials in the interest of making war the organizing principle of society had created a set of conditions in which the very idea of democracy, if not the possibility of politics itself, was at stake.” Giroux, Henry, The University in Chains, Paradigm, 2007, 14-15).

What kind of claims can be derived from these formative statements; the variety of literatures of more recent vintage, arguments of educational theorists such as Giroux; and our observations of universities, curricula, and academic professions?

First, higher education remains subject to, influenced by, and financially beholden to governments and corporations. These influences profoundly shape what professors and graduate students teach and research.

Second, as history shows, conceptions of disciplines, fields, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, fundamental truths pervasive in disciplines (rational choice in economics and the pursuit of power in political science) and the academic organization of universities are shaped by economic interests and politics.

Third, the structure of academic professions — professional associations, journals, peer review, the validation of professional work, definitions of the substance of courses, dominant paradigms governing disciplines — is largely shaped by economic and political interest.

Fourth, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the status quo, a status quo, again governed by economic and political interest.

Discourse and contradiction in higher education:
The university as “contested terrain”

It would be a mistake to leave the impression that all that the university does is negative, even as it is shaped by and serves the dominant economic and political interests in society. Within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962) called “normal science,” researchers and educators have made enormous contributions to society. But even this is not the whole story.

There emerged over the centuries and decades a view that this institution, the university, should have a special place in society. It should be, in a term Christopher Lasch used to refer to the family, “a haven in a heartless world.” Through its seclusion, professors could reflect critically on their society and develop knowledge that could be productively used by it to solve human puzzles and problems. This view of higher education diametrically conflicts with the reality described above.

The Galileo case suggests he was punished for his theoretical and communications transgressions by the academic hierarchy of his day. More recently, scholars such as Scott Nearing were fired for opposing World War I, and over the years hundreds more for being communists, eccentrics, radicals of one sort or another, or for challenging accepted professional paradigms. Of particular virulence have been periods of “red scares,” when faculty who taught and/or engaged in activism outside some mainstream were labeled “communists,” which by definition meant they were traitors to the United States.

In response to the ideal of the free-thinking scholar who must have the freedom to pursue her/his work, professional organizations and unions embraced and defended the idea of “academic freedom.” Academic freedom proclaimed that researchers and teachers had the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge in their field unencumbered by political constraints and various efforts to silence them and their work. To encourage young scholars to embrace occupations in higher education and to encourage diversity of views, most universities in the United States gave lip service to academic freedom and in the main have sought to protect the principle in the face of attacks on the university in general and controversial scholars in particular.

During periods of controversy and conflict in society at large, universities too become “contested terrain.” That is, external pressures on universities lead administrators to act in ways to stifle controversy and dissent. The targets of that dissent and their supporters, and students and colleagues at large, raise their voices to protest efforts to squelch it. Interestingly enough, the university, which on the one hand serves outside interests, on the other hand, prizes independence from outside interests,” as a place where ideas are debated and contested, and students and teachers alike connect these ideas to their activity in the world beyond the campus, then conceiving of its impacts only in terms of careers, job satisfaction, and vague references to well-being is too limited. The university should be a place where traditional and non-traditional students are stimulated to develop a deeper understanding of the world and some sense of how it can be changed for the better.

In addition, the model of the university as “contested terrain” is a communal one, involving teachers, students, and various communities in the ongoing collective struggle to better understand the world and conceptualize ways to engage in it. In a very profound sense, attacks on universities from within and without are attacks on democracy. And for that reason the university as contested terrain must be defended.

[Harry Targ is Professor Emeritus at Purdue University. He taught United States foreign policy, international relations, and Peace Studies. Harry is a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]


Read more articles by Harry Targ on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Targ.

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