Philosopreneurs: Thoughts on labor at the Exciting New Grad School

Is the Exciting New Grad School an inherently anti-labor institution?

First, as Adam has already pointed out, perhaps one reason for the apparent excitement for the Global Center for Advanced Studies is the hunger for an alternative to the increasingly neoliberalized world of U.S. higher education. It is, of course, incontrovertible that higher education is under attack from a number of directions, and that, particularly from the perspective of students, skyrocketing tuition costs are one of the most troubling trends. After one reads past the alarmingly fantastic rhetoric on the GCAS website and facebook page, it appears that one of their primary marketing strategies is to present the school as a low-cost, easy alternative to traditional schools.

The burden of student debt, however, should be put into the context of larger trends, not only in higher education, but in primary education and the economy as a whole. There are serious problems with building social movements that are too narrowly focused on debt–a troubling trend coming out of the Occupy movement. Further, the idea that seeking funding from private institutions and launching kickstarter campaigns are the solution to rising student debt is to is, to be blunt, ludicrous. Those are not avenues of resistance to neoliberalism; they simply are neoliberal tactics par excellence. It has been demonstrated over and over that federal and state education policy are mostly to blame here. Higher education could be completely free if states raised taxes and the federal government redirected tax subsidies. Achieving those goals, however, would require political projects, not Silicon Valley-style gimmicks. The inner solidarity between the GCAS project and ideology that is espoused by the institutions that they claim to offer an alternative to is expressed in their use of master signifiers such as “revolutionary,” “creativity,” and “[labor of] love.”

In addition to these problems, I think it is vital that we examine the GCAS initiative from the standpoint of what it means for academic labor. Part of what has contributed to the neoliberalization of education in general, and especially higher education, is that there has been little to no resistance by organized labor to the policies of administrators and legislators. The 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike has shown that long-term union organizing is the *only* method whereby these destructive policies of education “reformers” can be resisted. The recent actions in the university systems of CaliforniaMaine, and Wisconsin are glimpses of a future where administrators don’t sit by and allow tenure to slowly die out: they want to swiftly and completely destroy the one non-precarious form of academic labor. I don’t think that readers of this blog need to be reminded of why tenure is so important and how precarious it is to be in academia without it. Is anyone shocked that tenure has come under such fierce attack precisely at the time when it has finally begun to be extended to women, POC, and LGBT faculty? Are we shocked that those groups are also the first targets when tenured faculty are laid off?

The question becomes: what does academic labor look like in a GCAS world? As far as I know, there has been no discussion of how something like GCAS could build solidarity amongst its laborers. A pro-worker institution could, no doubt, take many forms. Something like a co-op springs to mind as one such option. I don’t think this would would ameliorate the multitude of problems, but it would at least be a minimal gesture. I don’t claim to have a utopian vision of a better system, but I am sure of one thing: privatization is not the solution.

A number of other questions come to mind: what disciplinary regime is incumbent upon scholars in a world of youtube instruction? Must we always be carefully building and protecting our public image? Who gets to decide the faculty of GCAS? Is it one or two white guys who answer not to any public body, but only to their investors/donors? What sorts of habits does this regime inculcate in aspiring academics? Become a celebrity so that you can get a one-class contract? Is there an implicit belief in Ayn Randian individual merit where somehow the most “worthy” academic up-and-comers will rise to the top and get recognized? Do we really want to be turning academics into philosopreneurs? Do we want to market education to students based on the celebrity status of the “faculty”?

Traditional universities have trained, established, and currently (in most cases) provide employment for the professors who are listed on the “faculty” of the GCAS. This means that, at best, GCAS is parasitical on the current academic labor system. At worst, it may be actively contributing to its destruction.

Adolph Reed puts it succinctly: Neoliberalism is capitalism that seeks to destroy worker solidarity and resistance. If we want higher education to be a site of resistance, we should be taking cues from workers movements that seek to build broad community solidarity, rather than modeling a “revolutionary” school on Silicon Valley MOOC-ification. Don’t forget: Silicon Valley hates workers. Does the GCAS?

The ultimate reasons to distrust the Exciting New Graduate School

Whatever you think of their awesome “faculty” (i.e., the roster of people who said they’d hypothetically be open to doing guest lectures), it appears that the intellectual habits that the Global Center for Advanced Studies is inculcating in its supporters do not offer an encouraging alternative to current academic norms. In all my interactions with self-identified advocates, the same patterns have repeated themselves, namely:

  • Blind faith: If anyone questions the vast claims that the GCAS makes for its transformative, revolutionary power, advocates simply repeat the propaganda talking points without even engaging with any of the questions about the gap between reality and the propaganda. Sometimes they will gesture toward some level of “constructive criticism” that is hypothetically allowed, but that seems to be a purely virtual point of reference — in practice, no criticism or questions are tolerated.
  • Ad hominem attacks: Critics of the GCAS invariably have an ax to grid in advocates’ minds. They dislike the founders personally and want to undermine them out of pure spite. They are coddled by the current academic system and resent the possibility that the GCAS’s disruptive innovation could challenge their privileges. This follows naturally from the blind faith — since the GCAS is so self-evidently good, the only possible motives for criticizing it are malice or selfishness.

This dynamic resembles nothing so much as Christian heresiology. The fact that such an attitude has sprung up around an institution that does not even exist yet in any meaningful form is alarming and saddening. (The one exception to this dynamic was Patrick Provost-Smith, who is no longer associated with the effort; cf. my original thread on the GCAS.)

As I said the first time I addressed this issue on the blog, the GCAS does not show us a viable way to reform academia. At best, it’s a rehashed European Graduate School, and at worst, it’s a MOOC provider. At a certain point, insisting on the hype in the face of all the obvious counter-evidence is no longer optimism or faith or love — it’s either delusional or dishonest. I don’t know how to reform academia, but I’m pretty sure that buying into insane lies is not the answer.

Posted in academia, politics of the absurd. Comments Off

Updates from the Exciting New Grad School

The Global Center for Advanced Studies is offering a one-credit course on contemporary philosophy of religion. It will consist of four class sessions team-taught by John Caputo, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis, with special guest lectures by Thomas Altizer, Jeff Robbins, and Pete Rollins — a rare case of having more professors than class sessions. Despite this surplus of instructors, however, it appears that they were unable to find room for a single woman or person of color for either the teaching docket or the reading list.

In a blow against neoliberal hegemony, the class will consist of video lectures supplemented by online discussion sessions — i.e., it is distinguished from a MOOC only by the fact that they’re charging. In a bold stand against corporate domination of the university, those discussion sessions will be held on Facebook and Google+, and the textbooks (which mainly consist of the writings of the professors themselves) are made available through links to Amazon.

Under the section on credit, the syllabus specifies that “This course is designed to be as rigorous academically as any graduate (upper level under-graduate) course.” And it shows — students are expected to write a five-page research paper that cites at least two sources. Those of us who suspected that GCAS would amount to little more than an American version of the European Grad School can feel a certain vindication, given that this section also reveals that the GCAS will be piggy-backing on the EGS’s European accreditation for the time being.

This course may very well prove to be informative and helpful for the participants on some level, but I don’t think any but the most blinkered advocates can claim it adds up to anything revolutionary or paradigm-shifting. People have suggested various theories for why I’m so skeptical of this venture, including personal animus toward the school’s founders or jealousy at not being invited to participate. I think that a careful reading of this syllabus can lay those speculations to rest. I’m skeptical of this venture because the gap between the insane hype and the lackluster reality is a yawning, nigh-unfathomable abyss.

The only possible way to reform the U.S. Senate

The United States Constitution specifies that no state can be involuntarily deprived of equal representation in the Senate, which I take to mean that any state that refused to ratify a constitutional amendment establishing proportional Senate representation would be entitled to as many senators as the most populous state. Some have proposed that we amend the Constitution to remove that stipulation, but doing so may give rise to the legal paradox of a constitional amendment that is itself unconstitutional.

One idea that is not given adequate attention is that there is a number of senators that is at once equal for all states and proportional to their population: i.e., zero. Reducing each state’s number of senators to zero would hence fulfill the requirements of the above stipulation while satisfying the demand for more democratic representation. In order to bring about this outcome without causing constitional deadlocks, all the duties and powers of the Senate would first need to be either abolished (as in its role in creating legislation) or transfered to another branch of government (treaties, presidential appointments, etc.). Once that was done, emptying the chamber of all members would seem only appropriate.

Particularly interesting in this connection would be the position of the Vice President, whose sole specified constitutional duty is to preside over the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes when necessary. Given that the Senate would now be a purely notional legislative body with no members, powers, or duties, the Vice President would become the most deeply Agambenian political figure in history — a true embodiment of inoperativity. What’s more, the Vice President is not a member of the Senate and hence is not allowed to introduce legislation, only to vote in the case of a tie. Hence the Vice President would be radically unable to do anything other than to convene and adjourn meetings of the null set of all senators, which does not include the Vice President him or herself.

This is a proposal that I could get behind — indeed, enthusiastically. If we’re going to have a nonsensical system of government, let’s at least push the ontological boundaries.

The solution to unemployment isn’t better-trained workers: Or, Systemic problems have systemic solutions

Following Chomsky’s advice, I follow the business press to see what the ruling class thinks is going on in the world, and more specifically, I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek, which occasionally allows reality to creep in (global warming is real, deficits aren’t always bad) as opposed to the more nakedly ideological Economist. Recently, for instance, they ran a piece on the minimum wage which included the fact that raising the minimum wage does not actually decrease employment outside of the artificial environment of Econ 101. Yet it also included this little gem:

“Raising the minimum wage is a short-term fix,” contends Wal-Mart’s [vice president for communications, David] Tovar. The long-term solution, he says, involves “expanding education, training, and workforce development.”

This kind of nonsense drives me absolutely crazy. It makes no sense to assume that changes in the composition of the workforce will lead to significant increases in aggregate employment levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Joyless nihilism: On the afterlife of postmodernism

I recently had the misfortune of watching Star Trek Into Darkness. It is of course an utter failure as a film — a convoluted and contradiction-laden plot barrels along with no character development whatsoever — and as an adaptation of Star Trek. Many people complain of the new films’ violation of the spirit of the original, but the real problem is that the films themselves have no discernable spirit whatsoever. They don’t betray or violate the original Star Trek, so much as piece together themes and characters in a completely free-form way. Sometimes they reverse themes from the original, but it doesn’t have any kind of message — for instance, they seem to have pointlessly violated Spock’s lack of emotions (which they didn’t even set up adequately for it to have any impact to a new audience), solely so that Spock and Kirk could reverse roles in a kind of parody of one of the most beloved scenes from Wrath of Khan. And what does that parodic reversal get us? Nothing whatsoever. It simply refers to itself as a parodic reversal and expects us to pat it on the head for being so damned clever.

As I meditated on this abomination, a point of comparison emerged: Family Guy. Read the rest of this entry »

A contribution to the critique of White Dudes

This morning, I deleted a couple of attempted comments on Steven’s recent post, in which it was objected that the post was hypocritical in stereotyping white dudes while speaking out against stereotypes, etc. The Girlfriend felt I should let them through as a perfect example of the point Steven was trying to make, but I didn’t want to give the impression that such cliches were even remotely acceptable as a contribution to dialogue on this site. Still, The Girlfriend has a point — that kind of reversal of liberal values is absolutely the kind of White Dude behavior that Steven and most of his commenters were so eager to castigate, and I think it’s worth analyzing what goes on in such remarks.

First, the White Dude presents White Dudes — or to put it differently, whoever the hegemonic group is in a given context (straights, cis-gendered people, etc.) — as one group among others. The gesture is one of radical equality. Each of us has his or her own particularities, and none of us should be disadvantaged because of that. That may sound nice in a certain way, but then we realize that the White Dude is having his cake and eating it too. He is positing his own particularity only to mandate that everyone should adopt a stance of suitable abstraction from that particularity. And lo and behold, it turns out that the White Dude is the best at abstracting out his particularity and embracing a universal human vision — because if he were to make a similar remark about [insert disadvantaged group], boy would they be pissed! Thankfully, the White Dude is there to offer his dispassionate, reasonsed response and offer guidance to the overly emotional minorities who insist on their particularity in an inappropriate way.

Paired with this imperative to abstract is a sense that such abstraction is the very definition of progress — and surely that progress has made great strides! Yet at this late date, it appears that maintaining that progress has become the White Dude’s burden. Read the rest of this entry »

Providence shut-down

With the Son and the Holy Spirit still deadlocked on key issues, God the Father announced today that divine providence would be shutting down, effective immediately. This is the first providence shutdown since the Filioque controversy that famously led to the East-West schism in 1054, nearly a milennium ago.

Angelic messengers emphasized that certain essential services would continue uninterrupted. Most importantly, the Holy Trinity has measures in place to make sure that the creation is sustained in its existence even in the absence of an annual providential plan, and most laws of physics will continue to be enforced. Satan and his fallen angels will also continue to torture the damned in hell, which is technically not a providential agency, but an independently funded providence-sponsored enterprise.

However, non-essential services such as coincidences that are too perfect to be mere coincidences will be suspended. Guardian angel services will be continued, but due to reduced staffing, parents were urged to keep a close eye on their children until providence is fully restored. The Virgin Mary and a limited number of other important saints will continue to hear intercessions, but the majority of the heavenly host has been furloughed pending a providential plan. Prayers will of course continue to go unanswered in any case, as agreed in the providence sequester measure passed in 1754.

An appeal to the Republicans’ patriotism

Watching the budget and debt ceiling saga unfold, I have reluctantly concluded that the Republican Party is not corrupt and power-hungry enough. While there have always been protest parties that have the luxury of embracing abstract principles, actual ruling parties have only one overriding goal: to gain and maintain power. And I mean this in a very precise sense. If the Republicans are a ruling party — which means an opportunistic, unprincipled assemblage of incoherent interests — then their overriding goal is to maintain the power and privileges of party insiders, who form a self-selecting elite.

The problem, of course, is the existence of primary elections, wherein loosely affiliated voters get to select candidates. Read the rest of this entry »

The anti-intellectualism of intellectuals

One often hears intellectuals adopting anti-intellectual positions. Academics routinely deride the “Ivory Tower,” for instance, and highly educated theologians insist on the superior insights of the people in the pews. There’s apparently just something about reading and thinking a lot that makes some people crave contact with the “grass roots.”

I’ve tended to understand this as a form of self-hatred stemming from an anti-intellectual culture, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if there might not be another factor at work. Maybe the intellectuals who are so enamored of plain folk just enjoy being the smartest person in the room. Maybe they’re tired of arguments, tired of proving themselves — and they just want to settle down in a social location where everyone will recognize that they’re right. They side with the people over against the elitist intellectuals because that is the way for them to secure their elite status. They deride other intellectuals as divisive bullies, as intolerable snobs, in order to innoculate their group from seeking another intellectual leader.

In other words, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals is an attempt to convert intellect directly into power and authority. Thus in a sense, they’re right to distinguish themselves from the “Ivory Tower,” that mythical land where people argue in good faith and accept criticism and correction, where people don’t take the recommendation of another book as an insult and welcome input from people who know more than them. Where’s the payoff in that?


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