Monday, November 19, 2012

"The Dictatorship of the Marketplace," and Academia

by P. L. Thomas

Furman University

The second annual Critical Theories in the 21st Century conference did not unfold like the scripted plot arc traditional literature instruction teaches students about Shakespearean plays. If it had, the day would have peaked during the lunchtime performance of Hip Hop Psychology, and from there, the ideas would have worked themselves out into a nice and tidy denouement.

Instead, the day ended on the same confrontational and high note as the possibilities examined during the lunch performance that asked us all to consider and re-consider what voices matter; what media, modes, and genres of expression matter; and who determines the answers to each with Peter McLaren's talk: "The End of Education: The Case Against Capitalist Schooling."

McLaren challenged critical educators and scholars to imagine and re-imagine what a post-capitalist world would be—to make that ideal real and to do so beyond the walls of academia.

In the question and answer session after McLaren's talk, a central tenet in critical pedagogy and the work of Paulo Freire was confronted: To take an objective pose, to not act, is to implicitly endorse and perpetuate the status quo, regardless of the ethical credibility of that status quo. McLaren's story of his own experiences with real teachers in oppression forced that ideal to become real, and thus to render the tenet problematic. [Extrapolate, as well, McLaren's story of oppressed indigenous teachers into the context of academia and further imagine the objective pose for adjunct professors, untenured professors in the tenure track, and then tenured professors.]

That Big Picture moment presents, for me, a doorway into raising a related question about confronting the status quo of "scholarship" for teachers, academics, and scholars. Freire (1998) speaks about "remak[ing]" the world by "refus[ing] the dictatorship of the marketplace" (p. 115)—a call at the heart of the conference at West Chester University. But I want to focus that Big Picture ideal against the narrow events of the conference—filled with presenters and participants from all across the spectrum of academia (undergraduate students, graduate students, adjunct instructors, untenured professors, tenured professors, and countless "statuses" in which we exist with the world as well as with the world of academia).

As critical students, teachers, and scholars spent the day "refusing the dictatorship of the marketplace," we often embodied and perpetuated what I will call the "dictatorship of academia"—the norms of "scholarship," the traditions of the tenure process, the expectations for scholarly publications.

Seeking the Post-Capitalist World: Beyond the Dictatorship of Academia

The history of embodying an ethical stance against the oppressive weight of law and norms includes the words and actions of Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Freire (just to note a few points in history). But this ethical living often carries tremendous consequences that are more readily managed by some (those in privilege, such as scholars or more emphatically tenured scholars) than for the oppressed, creating the irony of paternalism, the compulsion to liberate others at the exclusion of each person's autonomy.

Yet, once that tension is recognized, another tenet of critical pedagogy, we can come to honor the potential of ethical action that lies underneath the privilege of academia. In other words, many scholars are afforded a level of privilege by their status that raises the obligation of meeting the necessity of recognizing, embracing, and acting upon ones subjectivity; what Freire (1998) states as "our ethical responsibility in the exercise of our profession" (p. 23).

Let me pause here and ask that we make some uncomfortable observations and raise some uncomfortable questions based on the conference itself. On the Facebook page for the conference, Brian Ford noted about Powerpoints: "i know it may not be as scholarly as papers," and I noticed during the presentations themselves that we mostly read traditional papers and presented with certain types of Powerpoint presentations (lots of citations and quoting from the "shoulders of giants").

In other words, regardless of our status within academia, how many of us retain, personify, and perpetuate the "dictatorship of academia" while calling for a post-capitalist world? 

Are we both products of and agents for tenure processes indistinguishable from hazing, introductory courses that serve as gatekeeping for departments and fields, and publication paradigms that use marginalizing mechanisms to confront the tyranny of marginalization?

Can we fairly extrapolate Freire's (1998) caution about being an authoritarian teacher—"It serves no purpose, except to irritate and demoralize the student, for me to talk of democracy and freedom and at the same time act with the arrogance of a know-all" (p. 61)—to the authoritarian scholar/academic? I think so.

Then, I am asking us to look outward and inward about how we embody and perpetuate norms of mode, medium, and genre in terms of the concept "scholarship"; as Freire (1998) warns, "No one can be in the world, with the world, and with others and maintain a posture of neutrality" (p. 73), or as I would qualify for this discussion, a posture of "scholarship" that perpetuates the norms of the dictatorship of academia (which is increasingly, as we examined during the conference, an extension of the "dictatorship of the marketplace").

To challenge and engage others and each other about the legacy of Freire in the context of Fromm is a rich and dynamic thing, a critical thing, but to say directly or implicitly that anyone's voice about Freire and Fromm must be in this or that box of "scholarship" before we'll even engage, or worse yet, to call for a certain mode, medium, or genre because of what other people expect is to bow to the "disastrously elitist style of being intellectuals" (Freire, 1998, p. 99).

And now we circle back to the paradox of it all: Let this not be yet another tyranny against the prepared paper read at conferences, or that certain type of Powerpoint. Instead, this is a call to consider not what forms our scholarship takes, but why and by whose decision, and within what type of community "scholarship" is defined and perpetually re-defined: Are equity and opportunity being honored above "objectivity," "rigor," and a whole host of norms at the edges of the dictatorship of academia walling some ideas in and some ideas out? [Does it matter that I use first-person, that this is a blog, that my citations are hyperlinks?]

Just as critical scholars and teachers must not stoop to paternalism in the pursuit of liberation, scholars must not marginalize in their quest to end marginalization. While critical pedagogy in the pursuit of a post-capitalist world  is about both ideology and praxis, we must be vigilant about recognizing and confronting the norms of scholarship that form the "bureaucratizing of the mind" (Freire, 1998, p. 111):
"It is this: If education cannot do everything, there is something fundamental that it can do. In other words, if education is not the key to social transformation, neither is it simply meant to reproduce the dominant ideology" (p. 110).
Again, at the lunch performance by Hip Hop Psychology, we were asked to consider whose voice matters, whose voice is allowed, and as significantly I think, what scholarly modes, media, and genres are allowed to break down the walls of the dictatorship of academia.

I hope this blog space called the Critical Scholars Project can be a living testament to that message between this past conference and the ones on our horizon.

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