"IN DEFENSE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION:
By Sarah Cairns
The View Magazine
Higher education can provide individuals with the means to critically evaluate the society in which we live. Colleges and universities are supposed to foster an environment in which to research and discover new knowledge that could benefit all humanity. Most importantly they can teach us to embody the principles of social equity and respect for community. It could be argued then that the commodification of education threatens the very fabric of these ideals, as post-secondary institutions continue to morph into commercial entities that require private funding in order to operate.
"The fight over education is the fight over democracy," declares Dr. Henry Giroux, author of Take Back Higher Education and Communica-tions and English professor at McMaster University. "We're talking about the relationship of higher education to the promise and the possibility of democratic public life at a time when democracy has never been under more of a siege. "Given the current historical moment when corporate capital seems to be, in a sense, commodifying and turning everything it sees into nothing but a profit, then the purpose of the university as a democratic public sphere becomes all the more urgent and necessary to fight for."
Giroux's comments come at a time when Canadian universities are being strong-armed into applying big business models in order to survive, as government funding continues to be slashed and philanthropic donations dwindle.
"You often see many university presidents now, as they increasingly get closer and closer to the world of corporate culture, adopting corporate values as a way to actually manage the university," Giroux notes.
But the concept of post-secondary commodification and even privatization involves much more than an institution simply streamlining and becoming a good fiscal manager. As the corporate sector's necessary role of funder increases, so too does its influence.
This influence infiltrates every aspect of post-secondary life, from the opening of shopping outlets on campuses like York, to corporations finding seats at board tables at institutions like McMaster (at which no less than 26 corporate interests are represented), to steering research in ways that benefit special interests. "The pressure from the business community (is that) we've got to teach people something that can be applied right now, and the market is the place to apply it, and that's a very short-sighted view," relates McMas-ter's Dr. George Sorger, Biology professor. "Human beings are much more than decision makers in markets." "Every aspect of the process gets commercially carpet bombed, and of course, the end result is a subordination often of democratic values to commercial values," Giroux explains. "And that's a terrible thing, because what often happens is that those values basically educate people to be workers and consumers. But they don't educate them to be critical agents capable of both engaging the world, understanding it and transforming it when necessary." The ideology behind post-secondary institutions has always been to educate. A university's role is to produce individuals capable of critical thought, or, in Giroux's words, to be "like a fifth estate... to keep power accountable or to take seriously what it means to reproduce or sustain, if not extend a democracy." But according to Jane Jacobs, author of Dark Age Ahead, "institutions devoted to respecting and fulfilling these needs as their first purposes have become rare." Credentials and job-specific training is fast becoming the norm.
"If you train to do something, that's a short cut into a recipe where you learn 'how' to do it, but not what goes into the design of that 'how,'" says Sorger. "What that means is, when you're training for the market you will probably be out of date very quickly and then have to go back and be retrained. Now, from the point of view of an institution issuing degrees for that training, that's a guarantee that you'll always be relevant. But it's not the sort of thing that universities consider an education." Unfortunately, universities are hard-pressed these to find an alternative cash source; until they do, the intermingling of the corporate sector and post-secondary education will continue. So, a solution must lie in balance.
"You don't fight their influence as much as you re-educate them about what the purpose of the university is and how corporations can contribute," Giroux explains. "Corpora-tions can be enormously helpful by virtue of providing financial resources to universities in ways that expand the public face of the university, rather than control its curriculum, rather than set limits as to what kind of research can be done. These are grants that should be given in the spirit of public good, so that we can recognize that corporations can be good citizens and not merely always and boldly engines of profit. "I think this is something we have to take seriously, as opposed to saying that they can't do anything, there's nothing that they can contribute, they're always poisonous. That's purely reductionistic to me. At one level I don't want to under- emphasize how powerful and how pernicious corporate influence can be, but at the same time I'm not willing to define corporate influence only in those terms. It's not an either-or question."
Dr. Sorger agrees. "I don't think that corporate presence should be absent completely," he says. Instead, his answers lean more towards a change in attitude. "I see a solution very simply in changing the way we look at things, and it's not really a wrench in changing the lifestyle of the economic status of everyone, that's not it at all. But it is certainly a complete turn around in the way that we view the role of the market. It's not the principle and the main and the only thing that's everything, and because of that we have to regulate corporations.
"The defense of public education is not a narrowly focused issue-it affects everyone who participates in a democratic society. In an era when the pursuit of wealth continues to be viewed as the most ideal way of life, the role of the university as a free and public entity has become endangered, yet it is a role that is vitally important to preserve. V