Higher Education or Education for Hire?  Corporatization, Fictive Austerity and the Threat to Democratic Thinking

Dr. Joel Westheimer

Neoliberal discourses of the past decade have dramatically reframed the educational landscape of K-16 education. Pseudo-evidentiary notions of austerity and increasing emphasis of STEM subject areas over the humanities and social sciences have become ubiquitous. In the process, the historic role of universities founded on ideals of knowledge and service in the public interest has been challenged. This conference affords an amazing opportunity to explore, together, changes in university culture that stem from increasingly corporate models of governance and instructional priorities. I intend to ask how higher education might re-invigorate its public purpose, in particular in fostering civic leadership, civic engagement, and social cohesion. How can education re-invigorate democratic participation? How can colleges and universities strengthen our communities and our connections to one another?

I will focus on three developments stemming from a neo-liberal model of education that pose threats not only to the historic ideal of a liberal democratic education but also to the future of democratic thinking itself. They are the elimination of critical thinking and a culture of criticism; the weakening of intellectual independence and democratic faculty governance; and the promotion of a meritocracy myth that drives the work of graduate students, junior and senior faculty alike. The first two erode democratic thinking by curbing the habits of mind and heart that enable democracy to flourish – what John Dewey called the “associated experience[s]” essential to democratic life. The last – the meritocracy myth – attacks the heart of these associated experiences by diminishing the power of the community to nurture collective meaning and worth. I’ll finish up with possibilities for renewed emphasis on education for the common good.

Along the way, if the mood is right, I’ll share my experience of being fired from New York University. Why was I fired? Well, I can’t give the whole talk away here, can I?