Be stupid

It might be interesting to see a meeting between Jürgen Habermas and Paulo Freire (hint: I’m rooting for Freire). Habermas failed to see the capacity for political critique in any but the European bourgeois.[1] Freire devoted a career to developing that capacity beginning with his educational efforts in neglected poverty-stricken parts of Brazil, a widely read book,[2] and continuing activism in support of critical pedagogy around the world.

Unfortunately, of course, Habermas isn’t entirely wrong. Mass culture, particularly as seen in the U.S., is indeed an intellectual desert, decimating whatever intelligence survives a system of education that often seems determined not merely to beat back the acknowledgement of diversity but to exclude anyone—the majority of the planet’s population in fact—who is different from the normative bourgeois white heterosexual able-bodied male of European (preferably northern) ancestry, indeed to admit only and universalize and generalize from the rulers, and to exclude, stereotype, and belittle the ruled, and not only that, but to divide the ruled against themselves.[3] But in criticizing mass culture, Habermas seemingly fails to infer how rulers who historically sought to reserve the right of political critique only to themselves and a bourgeois who are interested in preserving their own privileges[4] might act to develop an educational system that segregates the well-off from the poor and prepares the latter only to be cogs in the corporate machine, and to work so hard for so many hours that they will settle for the televised portrayals of a prosperity that they will never enjoy.[5]

As we observe the advance of the austerity agenda, higher education has been hit hard while Paul Krugman points out that the agenda is really about “using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs.” But what we’re also seeing is larger than this, larger even than, as Krugman puts it, “shrink[ing] the size of the state,” or “using the crisis, not solving it.”[6] Cuts in higher education preceded the financial crisis. This largely appears at state-level coverage, so it may appear unsystematic, but it is, nonetheless, a longstanding nationwide trend.[7] Just this morning, word of another blow to the already hard-hit California systems of higher education[8] appeared in budgetary threats to the libraries at University of California in Berkeley, reputedly one of the five best universities in the world. “Sometimes I go to Europe so that I can work!” Professor Deborah Blocker said. “This is still a great library, but it’s becoming more complicated.”[9]

UC Berkeley is, to be sure, an elite school. I’ve been told that a prospective student must have a 4.0 GPA to even be considered for admission. But it’s not hard to imagine that if it’s coming to this at an elite school, problems at less elite institutions must be even more severe. I know as I was finishing up my Master’s degree, which I finished in 2009, at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, I perceived that the quality of library offerings among the journal article databases seemed to have deteriorated dramatically—I believe I used the term, “eviscerated,” and it was at that time I began traveling to UC Santa Cruz to use the spectacular McHenry Library. Further, there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that students are having a hard time getting classes while people like myself, qualified to teach them skills that employers claim to want, remain unemployed (a Master’s degree is entirely adequate for a career in a community college).

But the fact that cuts to higher education predate the financial crisis means that we must look to longer-standing budget priorities. Since it is the elite that determines those priorities, Habermas’ oversight becomes even more crucial. Further, we must consider a context of brutality toward any dissent, even as conditions become untenable even for the middle class. The elite want us to be stupid, they want us to be fit to fight their wars, and they certainly don’t want us questioning the status quo.

  1. [1]Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991).
  2. [2]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  3. [3]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  4. [4]Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
  5. [5]Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992); Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970).
  6. [6]Paul Krugman, “The Austerity Agenda,” New York Times, May 31, 2012,
  7. [7]E. G. De Pillis and L. G. De Pillis, The Long-Term Impact of University Budget Cuts: A Mathematical Model, Argonne National Laboratory, May 2000,; Times-Picayune, “Higher education a target for state budget cuts across the nation,” January 20, 2011,
  8. [8]Mallory Newell, Higher Education Budget Cuts: How Are They Affecting Students? Report 09-27, California Postsecondary Education Commission, December 2009,
  9. [9]Nanette Asimov, “UC Berkeley’s libraries next chapter may be cuts,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 2012,

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