Monday, December 13, 2010

Demythologizing the Fetish of Academic Excellence

By Professor Gerry Lanuza

“The first aspect to be emphasized is that educational practice is a dimension of social practice,” says Paolo Freire. Schleiermacher in his “'Occasional Thoughts on the German Conception of the University” viewed the notion that "a scientific person could live shut off by himself in solitary labors and undertakings” as a "sheer delusion." " However much he appears to work alone in the library, at his writing desk, or in the laboratory, his learning processes are inextricably interwoven with a public "community of investigators" (Peirce).

Pierre Bourdieu the Jurassic Marxist in French sociology called for academics to become public intellectuals. But committed scholarship, for Bourdieu, does not mean limiting politics, pedagogy, or social change to the world of text or the narrow province of discourse. Nor does committed scholarship and pedagogy provide an excuse for those intellectuals who often “mistake revolutions of the order of words, or texts, for revolutions in the order of things, to mistake verbal sparring at academic conferences for interventions in the affairs of [public life].” According to Bourdieu, academics had not only to engage in a permanent critique of the abuses of authority in the larger social world, but also address the deadening scholasticism that often characterised work in the academy. This was not simply a call for them to renounce an all too common form of political irrelevance rooted in the mantra of professionalism that inveighed against connecting higher education to the public realm or scholarship to larger social issues, but also an attempt to convince intellectuals that their own participation in the public realm should never take place at the expense of their artistic, intellectually rigorous, or theoretically inclined skills. In this instance, the meaning of what it meant to be a public intellectual could not serve as an excuse to substitute a celebrity-like, public-relations posturing for the important work of collective struggle and intervention.

As neoliberalism penetrates deeper the uncommodified spaces of our society, schools can become the alternate heterotopias that can resist the omnipotent power of capital. Schooling under neoliberal capitalism purports to produce a mass work force which does not think for itself, but should accept without question the rhetoric and orders of the ruling economic, political, and social elites, who have amassed a concentration of economic and political power. As Henry Giroux, a critical pedagogue, says, “The time has come for intellectuals to distinguish caution from cowardice and recognise that their obligations extend beyond deconstructing texts or promoting a culture of questioning. These are important pedagogical interventions, but they do not go far enough. We also need to link knowing with action, learning with social engagement, and this suggests addressing the responsibilities that come with teaching students to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy by recognising that pedagogy is not just about understanding, however critical, but also provides the conditions for addressing the responsibilities we have as citizens to others, especially those who will inherit the future.”

As member of the academe, I have to face the painful truth of my own complicity with the dominant ethos of neoliberal philosophy of education. Again, Giroux is right: “But for educators to recognise the urgency of the crisis that links youth and democracy they will have to betray those dominant intellectual traditions that divorce academic life from politics, reduce teaching to forms of instrumental rationality that largely serve market interests, and remove the university from those democratic values that hold open the promise of a better and more humane life.” Allow me, then, to “betray” --as the highest act of love and fidelity according to Zizek—the dominant traditons I was socialized.
What is happening today is that the neoliberal logic has opened up the schools for corporate branding and because of its tendencies to commodify everything even the notion of active citizenship had been reduced to mere individualistic pursuit of academic excellence. The meaning of academic excellence has been hijacked by liberal oligarchs and their children in order to create a new mythology distinct from the way it was defined in the past by radical students and their mentors. It has become a badge of success for students to enter the corporate world while it serves as a perfect the whipping stick of teachers to castigate erring students who fails to parrot their own pedagogical creeds. Neoliberal philosophy of education has failed to enable students to translate pedagogy into publicly relevant topics. This resulted into social apathy among student-citizens as education is now defined as private rather than public goods. Many students and teachers have followed unwittingly Allan Bloom’s conservative idea of reading as pure pleasure and disconnected from social good. Thereby criticizing critical pedagogy in university along Bloom’s description: “speech overflowing with pious platitudes , the peculiar vocabulary of a sect of coven”.

The followers of neoliberal school reforms would like us to believe that that solution to dwindling funds and academic deterioration, inflation of grades, is to raise academic standards and focus on mastering the basic skills of fundamental subject matter. The fashionable mantra of today’s “captains of higher learning” (read: CEOs) is the dreaded slogan of anarchist gurus in the sixties, Ivan Illich: “de-schooling” now cannibalised as “life-long learning”. Yet despite the ingenuity that such slogan connotes, many teachers have become so engrossed with pedagogical techniques and teaching effectiveness that they abstract education from the wider social democratic processes. This naiveté leads to the creation of what Giroux aptly calls as the “pedagogy of the depressed” in which students are subtly programed to believe that getting better grades and mastering the skills are the be-all and end-all of education, and where teachers are reduced to mere bodies without organs of the teaching–war machines diligently preparing students to live the in nucleus of Christopher Lasch’s “heartless world”. Hence both mainstream teachers and students see critical pedagogy as relics of the past whose relevance is passé. For those who still manage to read “critical” works, they attempt to smuggle in critical spaces within the classrooms only to tell their students just like peddlers of educational plans: “Study now, engage later!” Rallies can wait, teachers cannot!

What we need to dismantle in our classrooms is the motto of the neoliberal guru that that good life is all about making profits and that the essence of democracy is profit making. Academic excellence is the passport to the good life. What kind of students do we breed? In ‘Rectify the Party’s Style in Work’, Mao wrote: ‘They proceed from a primary school of that sort to a university of that sort, they take a diploma, and are regarded as stocked with knowledge. But all that they have is knowledge of books, and they have not yet taken part in any practical activities, nor have they applied, in any branch of social life, the knowledge they have acquired…their knowledge is not yet complete. What, then, is comparatively complete knowledge? All comparatively complete knowledge is acquired through two stages: first the stage of perceptual knowledge and second the stage of rational knowledge, the latter being the development of the former to a higher plane’. Furthermore, ‘the most important thing is [to] be well versed in applying such knowledge in life and in practice’.

For those who prefer “real” pedagogues, should go directly to Mortimer Adler who proposed the Peidia: “[T]hey [students] may be memorizing machines, able to pass quizzes or examinations. But probe their minds and you will find that what they know by memory, they do not understand. They have spent hours in classrooms where they were talked at, where they recited and took notes, plus hours of homework poring over textbooks, extracting facts to commit to memory. But when have their minds been addressed, in what connection have they been called upon to think for themselves, to respond to important questions and to raise them themselves, to pursue an argument, to defend a point of view, to understand its opposite, to weigh alternatives? There is little joy in most of the learning they are now compelled to do. Too much of it is make believe, in which neither teacher nor pupil can take a lively interest. Without some joy in learning–a joy that arises from hard work well done and from the participation of one’s mind in a common task – basic schooling cannot initiate the young into the life of learning, let alone give them the skill and the incentive to engage in it further.”

Is this what academic excellence today amounts to? The capacity to memorize and pass exminations, comprehensive examinations with flying colors, but students are bereft of any sense of social justice? Can we therefore, as teachers, blame students if they mount a massive resistance to our everyday life in the campus and transform our classrooms into jungle for their protracted guerrilla warfare –absenteism, dropping, LOA, MRR, cheating, vandalism, grafittis, texting, yawning, making fun of our mannerisms, and even pornographically fantasizing about us?

Do we need another “quick fix ideology”? What all this suggests is that the real crisis in education is one that stems from the failure of this society to develop a public philosophy that is capable of defending schools as public spheres committed to performing a public service informed by emancipatory and democratic principles. The important point being that it has become increasingly what is at issue here is not just academic excellence but the very future of our university.

But is this realistic? Sooner or later one has to confront the “heartless world” and sell her soul to the highest CEO bidder! You demand realism? Then you should heed Murray Bookchin, the libertarian socialist, when he argues that “the highest realism can be attained only by looking beyond the state of affairs to a vision of what should be, not only what is”. John Holloway proposes a socialist philosophy of NO rather the capitalist YES! In Holloway’s spirit, we should turn around the question: “what is academic excellence?” to the more genealogical mode: “When will you stop wanting it?” And the false dilemma: “Is activism anathema to academic excellence” into a negation of the dilemma: “When will activism be a form of academic excellence?” We need Bourdieu’s “reasoned utopianism”: “being both against ‘pure wishful thinking (which) has always brought discredit on utopia’ and against ‘philistine platitudes concerned essentially with facts’; it is opposed to ‘the—ultimately defeatist—heresy of an objectivist automatism according to which the world’s objective contradictions would be sufficient in themselves to revolutionize the world in which they occur’ and at the same time to ‘activism for its own sake’, pure voluntarism based on an excess of optimism.”

John Sargis, who combines Adlerian pedagogy with radical democratic critique, names the culprit: The implicit frame is egocentric education: “Egocentrism is built into the system upon the accumulation of desires that are never satisfied in obtaining its objects of desire, and, as a result, seeks more and more gratification in more and more consumer objects.” He adds, “Socialized into the world by mass consumer society and carried into adult life by a variety of cultural industries inflating ego-centrism, students are a captured audience for economic exploitation. Indeed, they become so captivated that their own lives become enmeshed in the pursuit of false dreams of monetary success. This miseducation leads students away from democracy and equality and into a society of economic exploitation, totalitarianism, hierarchy, and inequality. A student’s fund of knowledge is displaced by a fund of fashionade consumerism, as the students themselves are initiated into an inner subjective standard wholly inscribed as a consumer.”

But the old Leftists who had seen the horrors of the past are simply chanting: “I have seen it, don’t do it again.” “No, it will not happen to my child.” They are like Sisyphus, the cultural hero of Camus and existentialist rebellion in the sixties, who kept on pushing a boulder to the top of the mountain. But they do not have the guts of Sissyphus. They got bored so they just left the Left. Others have become nostalgic that they seem to follow the monumental view of history as if they were the “last radicals” and the current young radicals as mediocre and inexperienced. Others on the other hand, while maintaining the utopian vision simply lack the desire to carry on. On the extreme side, are those who, after immersing themselves in dialectical materialism have chanced upon reading postmodern gurus from Paris and so they now disavow and recant all the follies they committed when they were young. They become pernicious in dismissing the clamors of the youth since they are totally convinced that they have mastered and transcended Maos’ Red Book. They have reached Nirvana and reached the peak of Mt. Olympus. Looking down at the youth’s pilgrim whom they consider as their mirror-images they hope these young people will get old soon to realize their own follies and mistakes. So, in the end, Nietzsche for them is right: everything is just an endless and meaningless repetition of irredeemable past mistakes. Only this time, they are braver: I will it thus! Amor fati!

It is in this climate of ideological struggle and myth-making that any talk about academic excellence becomes a loadstone that quickly draw violent and emotional reactions. This is all the more true for professors who dare to speak against the tabooed topics of radicalism in the academe –branding them as recruiters to the “lost causes” and brainwashers of students. The sleight in this acrimonious debate is that the so-called liberal protectors of university against leftist extremism ignorantly subscribe to the Weberian liberal understanding of academic public space while fully subscribing to the postmodern deconstruction of liberal narrative! It follows form these that professors who in any way, transgress the limits of liberal democracy are punished and warned: “Toe the line or else!” which amounts to the same thing: be a liberal or else…!” This imperative excellently demonstrates the postmodern superego, the superego under global capitalism:” Yes, you may rally, yes you may join student organizations, yes you may discuss these things BUT…” What is this big BUT? It should be voluntary, it should be free, it should be with consent and no coercion. Put crudely, radicals are put into a double-bind: you can be radical without being radical! Fantastic, isn’t it? It’s like having coffee without caffeine! Liberal professors, traumatized by the Gulags under local socialism, and mindful of industry of literature discrediting the totalitarian Stalinist logic of any revolution, see extremism as leading to mass destruction. How ironic! For they have to inculcate their liberal principles to students and faculty in the most liberal way: free consent, with permits, with transparency, and accountability! All humanistic values championed by the bourgeoisie. And for those whose Machiavellian adventurists who threaten the liberal fetish for order they are considered as insolent, students who devalue academics”, and mediocre!

This should not lead to pessimistic conclusion that the University is a liberal public space using subtle forms of coercion and brainwashing and ideological interpellations. Neither do we have to insist that UP is a Gulag or Alcatraz created by liberal utopians. We are closer here to Foucault: the school is also a place for contestation. That is why, when academic excellence is raised what radical professors should do is to contest the definition: who is defining it? For what? For whom? Why now? In the field of ideological struggle, any question is suspect. This is the exact meaning of radicalism!
So how do we deal with the liberal space of the university? The most ruinous strategy here is to follow Zizek’s injunction to follow the Law to the letter. Go ahead, fire student leaders who are disqualified under the Law. But only under one condition: disqualify all other students fail to be academically excellent! But then: Why stop with students? We should demand that to all professors and administrators! The vendors, jeepney drivers! We are supposed to be excellent. Everyone in the University profits from the taxpayers money. Hence there can never be a state of exception, including the President and the Board of Regents! This is reduction ad adsurdum! Definitely, there will be a lot of turnovers in the University; thereby fulfilling the corporate mandate of neoliberal philosophy championed by Hayek, Friedman and Misses! Let there be a witch-hunts against the academically stupid and mediocre. There are rules?
Here one touches the aporia between Law and Justice. Derrida argues that an infinite, irreducible “idea of justice” haunts every decision and necessarily haunts it in order for it to be a decision and not merely the application of a rule. In the face of this undecidability, though, Derrida also insists on the ongoing urgency of the decision, since incalculable justice requires calculation—it requires that the decision on what is just and right be made at any moment. Given that the rules disqualify certain teachers and students, is that JUSTICE?

Jean François Lyotard, the father of French postmodernism, in his The Postmodern Condition, criticized the fact that universities and institutions of higher learning have become victims of the logic of performativity under capitalism. The business of universities should have been the creation paralogical knowledge that breaks the “normal” configuration of society. The clamour for excellence has become the lame excuse for most of us in submitting ourselves to the standardization of performativity-driven post-industrial capitalism. Higher standard, tougher rules, better performance! More output, more publications, more international publications the better. These are not neutral standards. They are, as Habermas, would argue in his The Idea of a University, definite product a social configuration in late capitalism.

As a teacher of UP, my only regret, and here, I would like to face up to Nietzsche’s critique of the “slaves” who could not accept their past- is that I have not given enough for my nation and the university. I was also a victim of this liberal fetish for academic excellence and I forget the most important thing: not grades, not awards, not distinctions but solidarity with the wretched of the world! Second, I also regret not having cared for students who sacrificed their academics for the sake of organizing students and actively fighting in behalf of the mainstream apathetic students. In the age of academic mythologization and the general upsurge of student apathy it is worth reminding ourselves of the school failures of Einstein, Lincoln, Edison, and others. These great individuals could have been given the chance have they been taken cared off by the guardians of academic excellence, guardians who have not changed the world! Activist students are not Einsteins, Lincolns nor Beethovens. They have minute chances of surviving in the market that creates a “heartless world”. For that reason alone we should be more caring for them. To break the privatizing ethics of neoliberal capitalism, we must show solidarity with these students rather than ostracise them for failing to live up to what we expect of them –the supposed philosopher-kings and guardians of academic excellence! ‘
[Note: Least I be accused of plagiarism and academic mediocrity because I do not have references, I am appending my sources here.]

Adler, Mortimer. (1983) Paideia Problems and Possibilities. New York: MacMillan.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (2000) For a scholarship with commitment. Profession 2000.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1998) A reasoned utopia and economic fatalism. New Left Review I/227, January-February.
Derrida, Jacques. (1992) Force of law: the mystical foundations of authority,” in deconstruction and the possibility of justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3–67.
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Lyotard, Jean Francois. (1984) The postmodern condition, a report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984.
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(Editor's note: Professor Gerry Lanuza teaches at the University of the Philippines at Diliman Department of Sociology. This article has been uploaded with his permission).

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