The University Is No Place for Intellectuals, Composing, 30/08/2014

You can consider this post a place for reflections that aren’t fitting into content that I’m preparing for the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. Actually, the bulk of my ideas in this piece are personal reflections on this article by Justin Cruickshank and Ioana Cerasella that appeared on the website this Friday, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.” 

The piece itself is quite wonderful, though it is also quite long and written in an extremely academic style. So the informal nature of my comments wouldn’t really fit the type of exchange that could happen on SERRC. I’m more than happy to have a Twitter war if Cruickshank or anyone else from the Collective is up for it, though.

At the heart of Cruickshank and Cerasella’s ideas in this essay is a critique of neo-liberal ways of thinking and organizing higher education. In this model of thinking, an education institution is a service provider: students are customers, and the purpose of the educators is to cater to their desires, to give students the best possible customer experience. 

Customer service models of education and the corporatized
funding frameworks that accompany them enforce established
moral practices, such as the tolerance of campus sexual
misconduct and assault. Genuine education would challenge
established models of thinking and organization.
The problem is that this attitude is anathema to the civil purpose of education, which is to challenge students and encourage them to critique their own social and moral presumptions, and the cultural traditions of their own society. Education is meant to encourage people to become agents of social change. This process of change wouldn’t be through direct agitation necessarily; that’s for times of crisis. Ordinary social change happens simply through people thinking differently than the people who raised them. 

Dialogic interaction and education is how you inculcate this attitude, engaging people in a wide conversation among people and works in which they are always open to reconsidering and changing their own beliefs and desires. Cerasella and Cruickshank, following Karl Popper and John Dewey, call a society that engages publicly in these kinds of debates an open society. This is inherently different from the neo-liberal model of education as customer service. The customer never opens his desires to the possibility of change, and defines the quality of his education by how well his existing desires were satisfied. In this model, professors and other teachers are discouraged from challenging students because having their central beliefs and desires brought into question risks creating a negative customer service experience.

There are many books and essays currently being published that critique and decry this model of education as customer service. The increasing pressure to conform university education to this model is one of the reasons why I’ve left a career in post-secondary education and research behind. The goal of my original career was to use a post as a university professor to research and publish books that would speak to the issues of our times, and promote them to the general public to encourage thoughtful discussion and dialogue about ideas such as how to become ecologically conscious people or craft utopian political projects without falling into coercion or violence to enforce dogma. 

But these kinds of intellectual projects are largely no longer welcome in the university sector, especially from new entrants to the professoriat. They’re barely tolerated now coming from established figures. University posts are about providing services that satisfy a client’s existing desires and promoting one’s employer as a brand. The social and cultural consciousness that is necessary for a genuinely healthy university is gone. Hell, that social consciousness is important for a business: it’s what keeps a business, and even a brand, developing in a way that’s beneficial for a community and for humanity more generally. Without social consciousness, we’re little more than a bunch of mercenaries looking for the quickest buck.

Cerasella and Cruickshank’s article discusses this general perspective, with one particular example of how one attempt at using dialogic processes to enliven a British school district was demonized and destroyed by the Cameron government. The district had a large population of Pakistani immigrants, and school administrators initiated a cultural dialogue with the community about how the schools could better serve the community. 

It offered the opportunity for a community to integrate with wider British culture, and for the British mainstream to influence the Pakistani Muslim community. Since Muslim cultures today have a tendency to moral conformity, even beyond the horrifying Salafist sect (which these Pakistanis were not), the community could benefit from an open consideration of the British values of impish rebellion

The Cameron government denounced the effort as the radicalization of English schools with terrorist ideologies, clamping down on their dialogue while simultaneously using the affair to champion neo-liberal values of extreme individualism as inherently British values under threat from the menace of Islam.

Henry Giroux, a professor at my alumnus of McMaster
University, has written that the university is the natural home
of the public intellectual
, and is under assault from neo-liberal
values. I agree with the latter, but no longer the former.
Henry Giroux’s book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, a review of which I linked in the accompanying photo caption, laments the corruption of the university by customer service business models because it corrodes the role of public intellectuals. But most university professors are disciplinary researchers; they don’t write to the public, but to other researchers in their discipline. 

Universities used to be elite institutions, and the trend of democratizing the professorial class had hopes of making universities into institutions that served public progress, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But the norms of disciplinary disengagement with issues of public relevance pervaded the academy. Now the neo-liberal values of customer service further prevent professors from becoming critical voices in society. 

I hope that my new education will give me the foundation to work in a publishing, media, advocacy, or political organization that can provide society some of these critical voices when we so badly need them. The university and the education system more generally certainly will not provide such a voice.


  1. Thanks for the comments. We have posted a reply, thinking about elitism and education on the SERRC comments section below our article because we couldn't fit them into the comments box here.

  2. Thanks for this Adam. I have felt this way for years. Education is a business and students have become clients. Since universities are driven by the desire for profit, and tend to put their profit in the programs and disciplines that maximize immediate monetary gain and reputation, I don't see this "customer service" model of education as going away anytime soon. - Sheldon H.