Knowledge Politics #1: Critical University Studies

Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.

There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.

CUNY City College of New York

Consider the emerging field that Jeffrey J. Williams has recently named “critical university studies.” I’m not sure where such thinking fits into present-day academia (I certainly did not encounter it in my own coursework) but it seems to be emerging in response to the arrival of intense capitalist pressures at the gates of the ivory tower, threatening what Terry Eagleton calls “the death of universities.” It seems that higher education—and more specifically humanities, liberal arts, qualitative research, and face-to-face communication—may be one of the last bastions of resistance against the expansion of the capitalist machine.

I don’t want to paint a reductive picture of a battle between good and evil. I believe the capitalist market should be part of society, but not all of society. But is it true that arts and humanities faculties offer alternatives to the capitalist model of valuation? Can we link the push for teacher “accountability” in primary and secondary schools to the quantifiable demands of consumer capitalism? What about government and other social infrastructures? My real question is: What is the university? What does it stand for in the twentieth century? What does it mean to participate in this institution, to build a career in it, as opposed to another? Why is faculty governance important? What does tenure do beyond giving job security to a lucky few? I think we need to find better language to answer these questions.

CUNY Brooklyn College

Christopher Newfield does this when he writes about the difference between public and private universities. Rather than trying to justify or legitimate public universities by comparing them with private ones (or by linking them to increased “productivity” in a capitalist sense) he makes a stronger claim:

[P]ublic universities should emphasize their differences with private universities, and openly align themselves with mass creativity and the broad development of human capability. We should support a version of the innovation economy that is egalitarian and democratic—that develops craft and skill widely in the population, then puts it to use via mass employment.

I would call this a radical egalitarian view. But it’s very different from a communist view that would focus on regulating markets or reducing income inequality. Newfield is talking about education. He is treating education as a major site of politics, and the role of the university as foundational to democracy. This is old rhetoric, but it seems right to return to it now, at a time when the premises of higher education (especially public higher education) are being questioned and potentially undermined.

CUNY Staten Island

Newfield’s essay was part of a special section of commentary on “Politics and the University” in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past August. I hope this marks the beginning of a meaningful discussion of knowledge politics and education policy rather than the last cries of a dying institution. In other words, I hope that academia manages to bring some of its depth and rigor to bear on the national debate over education, rather than being reduced to one more soundbite.


  1. Sarah Ruth Jacobs says:

    Thanks for this. It’s timely for me because I was just posting on twitter about the first issue of a journal produced by this collective:

    This post made me reflect on the somewhat contradictory relationship that universities posit between themselves and the world–that is, as institutions that are separate from the world, and whose separation privileges their role in researching and critiquing the world. Then I think about Marx cursing how academics withdraw from worldly affairs.

  2. Sarah Ruth Jacobs says:

    As a follow-up, I noticed that Jeffrey Williams’ essay that you linked to from the Chronicle is also on the edu-factory site.

  3. Ben Spatz says:

    Thanks, Sarah! I was looking for that link to include in my post and couldn’t find it. Yes, I’m very interested in these developments. Let’s keep talking about it.


  1. […] didn’t answer these questions last time and I won’t answer them now. The previous post cited a number of recent arguments for the university as a site of public good. In this post, I […]

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