Higher Education Today: Theory and Practice


In the Beginning

I am a child of the cold war.  I was born in 1940, was an adolescent in the 1950s, and devoid of political consciousness when President Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” in 1960.   I was modestly inspired by the young President Kennedy’s admonition to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”  In fact I have thought a lot about that exhortation recently as I compare the enthusiasm with which young people embraced the Kennedy campaign in 1960 and the way young people today are energized by Barak Obama.  While most of us did not realize then that JFK spoke for American empire, he helped mobilize young people who throughout the 1960s fought against it.

I was not just an empty vessel, ready for cooptation, however.  I read and heard about the courageous people organizing and participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the freedom rides in the south.  And I slowly but significantly drifted into the cognitive orbit of the melodies and messages of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, but the politics of social change only marginally entered course work in high school and college.  As a student of foreign policy and diplomacy and international relations I gravitated toward the most “radical’ paradigm reflected in curricula at the time, “the realist” perspective.  This view suggested that all nations, even our own, were driven by the pursuit of power.  Defending freedom, fighting totalitarianism, standing up to communism, the realists said, was the discursive “cover” for the drive to power for which all nations were driven.

I attended a graduate program in political science that was in the forefront of the new “behavioral science” revolution.  We were told we were scientists in the academy and citizens when we returned home.  As scientists we were engaged in the pursuit of the construction of empirical theory about human behavior.  Our task was to better describe, explain, and predict — not change — political behavior.  The unverifiable “laws” of human nature, embedded in the realist logic, were to be replaced by rigorously acquired data and verifiable knowledge claims.

When I came to Purdue University in 1967, assigned to teach courses on international relations, I was troubled by the fact that neither the realists nor the behaviorists helped me understand the escalating war in Vietnam.  I was also increasingly troubled by the assumption that it was not my place as a professor to do anything about the war, as teacher or citizen, presumably armed with a body of knowledge that might have value to the debate about the war.

I started teaching a course with the ambiguous title “Contemporary Political Problems,” and through it my students and I explored the writings of the day that we thought bore upon our place in the world.  These ranged from The Autobiography of Malcolm X  (1965), to the Port Huron Statement (1995), to Camus’ The Rebel (1992), to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1959), to William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1972).  Later on I organized courses around anarchist and utopian thought.  My exposure to the Marxist tradition came later.

Almost invariably, our discussions ended up exploring what the various theorists and activists we read thought about education.  We added to our readings in these courses essays on education by Paul Goodman (1964), Ivan Illich (1999), Jonathan Kozol (1968), Herbert Kohl (1988), Robert Paul Wolff (1970), and such eclectic writers as Lewis Mumford (1963).  And this was before the availability of the works of Paulo Freire in the 1970s, and followers such as Henry Giroux (2007), Peter McLaren (2000), and other radical educational theorists.  Out of all this, I began to develop an analysis of the political and economic contexts of higher education; a sense of the contradictory character of education, particularly higher education; a conception of how my education had been shaped by the cold war and U.S. empire; how the modern university was “contested terrain,” as to ideas and behavior; how “theory and practice” were connected; and, for me, what the obligations of the educator were in the modern world.

The Political Economy of Higher Education

In his presidential address to the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 2000, Robert Perrucci refers to “Galileo’s crime.”  He argues that while most claim that Galileo was punished for proposing that the planets moved around the sun, others have pointed out that he was condemned because “he chose to communicate his findings about the earth and the sun, not in Latin, the medium of the educated elite, but in Italian, the public vernacular, parola del popolo” (Perrucci, 2001).

This thought, for me, constitutes a parable for the history of higher education as we know it.  In my view it is not unfair to suggest that institutions of higher education have always been created and shaped by the interests of the ruling classes and elites in the societies in which they exist.  This means they serve to reinforce the economic, political, ideological, and cultural interests of those who create them, fund them, and populate them.

Robert Paul Wolff years ago wrote a book entitled The Ideal of the University (1970). In it he identifies the historical university as the training ground for theology, literature, and law.  In each case, sacred or secular canonical texts were studied with a microscope.  Their study was designed to reify and transmit the core knowledge claims, ethics, and laws across generations.  Wolff’s description, written forty years ago, about a reality hundreds of years earlier might still resonate with us today.

Thus the activity of scholarship is in the first instance a religious and literary activity, directed toward a given corpus of texts, either divine or secular, around which a literature of commentary has accumulated.  The corpus is finite, clearly defined, growing slowly as each stage in the progress of Western civilization deposits its masterpieces in the Great Tradition.  Though the tradition may contain pregnant, emotionally powerful commentaries upon life and men’s affairs, the scholar’s concern is with the textual world, not with the world about which the text speaks.  (Wolff, 5)

Wolff (1970), Berlin (1996), Smith (1974) and others add to this discussion an analysis of how the university changed in the late nineteenth century to serve the needs of rising industrial capitalism in Europe and North America.  The university shifted in the direction of serving new masters: from the clerics and judges to the capitalists.  Plans were instituted in elite universities to develop “departments,” compartmentalizing knowledge so it can be fashioned for use in research and development, human relations, making the modern corporation more efficient, developing communications and accounting skills, and developing good citizens.  Elite universities initiated the changes that made higher education more compatible with and an instrumentality to modern capitalism.  The model then “trickled down” to less prestigious universities, which in the end become even more effective developers and purveyors of knowledge for use in capitalist societies.

Wolff quoted Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system and the target of the student movement in that state in the 1960s, who hinted at this theme of connectedness between certain societal needs, power, and education, and a parallelism between the era of the industrial revolution and the quarter century after World War II.

The American University is currently undergoing its second great transformation.  The first occurred during roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the land grant movement and German intellectualism were together bringing extraordinary change.  The current transformation will cover roughly the quarter century after World War II.  The university is being called upon to educate previously un-imagined numbers of students; to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activities with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents.  By the end of this period, there will be a truly American university; an institution unique in world history, an institution not looking to other models but serving, itself, as a model for universities in other parts of the globe.  (Wolff, 33-34)

For Kerr, the modern “multiversity,” responding to the needs of society as reflected in federal and corporate research funding, is obliged to produce scientists, engineers, and doctors.  This university, he said, was “a model” for higher education around the world.

During World War II and the cold war, the modern university began to serve powerful new masters.  As Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, advocated in 1946, there was a need to maintain the coalition of forces that defeated fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in Asia to stave off new threats to U.S. and global capitalism and to forestall a return to the grim Depression economy of the 1930s.  To do that, Wilson said, we needed to justify the need for government (particularly the defense department)/corporate/and university collaboration, a collaboration that did so much to secure victory during the war.  He once referred to his vision as “a permanent war economy” (Jezer, 31).  As the post-war years unfolded, that justification was created, the threat of international communism.  The military, defense-related corporations, and research institutions had a reason to work together: to lobby for dollars, do the research, produce the technologies, train future scientists and engineers for the cold war, and educate the broader non-technically trained population in and out of the university to accept the basic parameters of the cold war struggle.

Henry Giroux paraphrased President Eisenhower’s warning, referred to above: “. . . the conditions for production of violence, the amassing of huge profits by defense industries, and the corruption of government officials in the interest of making war the organizing principle of society had created a set of conditions in which the very idea of democracy, if not the possibility of politics itself, was at stake” (Giroux, 14-15).

Giroux claims that in Eisenhower’s first draft of his famous farewell address he refers to a “military-industrial-academic complex.”  In it Eisenhower recalls that in prior days scientists tinkered in their laboratories with experiments that intrigued them.  Now, because of huge costs, of course, scholarship and research required federal and corporate dollars.  But, and here is the warning, “. . . the prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”  Later in the 1960s, J. William Fulbright, former senator from Arkansas, warning about the influences of defense spending and the arms industry, wrote that “In lending itself too much to the purposes of government, a university fails its higher purpose” (Giroux, 14-15).

What kind of claims can be derived from these formative statements; the variety of literatures of more recent vintage, such as those by theorists such as Giroux; and our observations of universities, curricula, and academic professions?

First, higher education remains subject to, influenced by, and financially beholden to governments and corporations.  These influences profoundly shape what professors and graduate students teach and research.

Second, as history shows, conceptions of disciplines, fields, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, fundamental truths pervasive in disciplines (rational choice in economics and the pursuit of power in political science) and the academic organization of universities are shaped by economic interest and political power.

Third, the sociology of professions — professional associations, journals, peer review, the validation of professional work, definitions of the substance of courses, dominant paradigms governing disciplines — is largely shaped by economic and political interest.

Fourth, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the interests of the status quo, a status quo, again governed by economic and political interest.

Discourse and Contradiction in Higher Education

It would be a mistake to leave the impression that all that the university does is diabolical, even as it is shaped by and serves the dominant economic and political interests in society.  Within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” researchers and educators have made enormous contributions to social advancement in scholarship and human development.  However, the argument here is that the university as we should see it does serve some more centrally than others.  But even this is not the whole story.

There emerged over the centuries and decades a view that this institution, the university, should have a special place in society.  It should be, as Lasch referred to the family, “a haven in a heartless world.”  Through its seclusion, professors could reflect critically on their society and develop knowledge that could be productively used by society to solve human puzzles and problems.  In other words, the doctrine of higher education diametrically conflicts with the reality described above.

The Galileo case suggests he was punished for his theoretical and communications transgressions by the academic hierarchy of his day.  More recently, scholars such as Scott Nearing were fired for opposing World War I, and over the years hundreds more for being communists, eccentrics, radicals of one sort or another, or for challenging accepted professional paradigms.  Of particular virulence have been periods of “red scares,” when faculty who taught and/or engaged in activism outside some mainstream were labeled “communists,” which by definition meant they were traitors to the United States.

In response to the ideal of the free-thinking scholar who must have the freedom to pursue her/his work, professional organizations and unions embraced and defended the idea of “academic freedom.”  Academic freedom proclaimed that researchers and teachers had the right to pursue and disseminate knowledge in their field unencumbered by political constraints and various efforts to silence them and their work.  To encourage young scholars to embrace occupations in higher education and to encourage diversity of views, most universities in the United States gave lip service to academic freedom and in the main have sought to protect the principle in the face of attacks on the university in general and controversial scholars in particular.

During periods of controversy and conflict in society at large, universities become “contested terrain.”  That is external pressures on universities lead administrators to act in ways to stifle controversy and dissent.  The targets of that dissent and their supporters, and students and colleagues at large, raise their voices in protest of efforts to squelch it.  Interestingly enough, the university, which on the one hand serves outside interests, on the other hand, prizes independence from outside interests.

Red Scares in Higher Education

Ellen Schrecker documents the enormous impact that the red scare of the 1940s and 1950s had on higher education in her book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1988).  She interviewed academic victims of McCarthyite attacks on faculty at prestigious universities.  They were subpoenaed to testify before state legislative or Congressional committees about their former political affiliations and associations.  As was the requirements of the times, those ordered to testify could not just admit to their own political activities but were required to give witness against others who they may have known.

Some victims were former members of the Communist Party, others were signatories to petitions supporting the Spanish loyalists during their civil war, and still others had supported banning atomic weapons.  The most troubling element of the red scare story was the fact that university administrations refused to defend those of their faculty attacked and in fact, as she reports, some university officials demanded that their faculty cooperate with the investigatory committees.  Her subjects reported that they received little or no support from administrators because officials wished to protect their universities from funding reductions.

Since the collapse of the cold war international system, some scholars have begun to examine other aspects of the anti-communist hysteria as it related to the academy.  Fones-Wolf (1995) and others have addressed the multiplicity of ways in which funding priorities, rightwing assaults, official pronouncements from government officials, lobbying efforts by big business groups, and shifting electoral political currents affected and shaped the content of academic programs.  For example, disciplines can be seen as reflecting dominant “paradigms” which include assumptions about what the subject entails, what aspects of the subject deserve study, what theories are most appropriate for understanding the subject of the field, and what methods should be used to study subjects in the field.  All the social sciences and humanities privilege paradigms that did not challenge ongoing U.S. cold war assumptions about the world.

In each case, dominant paradigms of the 1950s and beyond constituted a rejection of 1930s and 1940s thinking, which was shaped by the labor and other struggles of the Depression era.  Literature shifted from privileging proletarian novels to the “new criticism,” separating “the text” from historical contexts.  History shifted from a model of historical change that highlighted conflict to one that emphasized consensus-building.  Sociology shifted from class struggle/stratification models of society to “structural functional” approaches.  Political science shifted from “elitism” and institutional approaches to emphasizing “pluralism,” in political processes.  For political science, every citizen in a “democracy” can somehow participate in political decision-making.

In other words, the military-industrial-academic complex shaped personnel recruitment and retention and the substance of research and teaching.  Some new disciplines, such as Soviet studies, were funded and rewarded at selected universities and the scholars trained at these institutions then secured jobs elsewhere.  Thus an anti-communist lens on the world was propagated.  Disciplines with more ready access to research dollars — from engineering to psychology — defined their research agendas to comport with government and corporate need.

In response to the university in the “permanent military economy,” students in the 1960s began to demand new scholarship and education.  Opposition to the Vietnam War particularly stimulated demands on professors to rethink the historical character and motivation of United States foreign policy.  William Appleman Williams and his students, the so-called revisionists, articulated a view that the United States practiced imperialism ever since it became an industrial power.  Classrooms where international relations and foreign policy were taught became “contested terrain” for argumentation and debate between the older and more benign view of the U.S. role in the world and the view of the U.S. as imperial power.  Dependency and world system theories gained prominence.

The contestations spread.  Students demanded more diverse and complicated analyses of race and racism in America, patriarchy and sexism in gender relations, and working-class history.  Every discipline and every dominant paradigm was subjected to challenge.  The challenges were also reflected in radical caucuses in professional associations and even in some of the more upright (and “uptight”) signature professional journals.  As a result there was a diminution of red scares in higher education, for a time.

The spirit of ideological struggle in the academy diminished after the Vietnam War and especially after Ronald Reagan became president.  Reagan brought back militant cold war policies, radically increased military expenditures, declared Vietnam a “noble cause,” and developed a sustained campaign to crush dissent and reduce the strength of the labor movement.  The climate on campus to some degree returned to the 1950s.

However, a whole generation of 60s-trained academics were now tenured faculty at universities around the country.  They had institutionalized programs in African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, and Middle East Studies.  Critical theorists populated education schools, American Studies programs, and other pockets of the university.  These faculty continued the debate with keepers of dominant paradigms, created interdisciplinary programs, and developed programs shaped by key social issues such as racism, class exploitation, gender discrimination, and war.

But by the 1990s, a new red scare was surfacing.  Some conservative academics and their constituencies talked about declining standards brought by the new programs.  Others criticized what they regarded as an insufficiently rosy view of United States history.  They claimed that the United States was being unfairly condemned for being complicit, for example, in a holocaust against Native Americans or because slavery and racism were central to the history of the country.  They formed academic associations and interest groups to defend against critical scholarship.

Then David Horowitz came along.  Overseeing a multi-million-dollar foundation funded by rightwing groups, Horowitz launched a campaign to purify academia of those who have records of teaching, research, and publication that he saw as unduly critical of the United States, ruling political or economic elites, or the global political economy.  He opposes those scholar-activists who participate in political movements or in any way connect their professional life with their political lives.  And he opposes those academics who participate in academic programs that are interdisciplinary, problem-focused, and not tied to traditional fields of study.  He published a book in 2006, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006), in which he presents distorted profiles of illustrative faculty whom he believes have violated academic standards because of a variety of transgressions.  Most of those identified either engage in political activity and/or participate in interdisciplinary scholarly programs that he finds offensive: Middle East Studies, Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, American Studies, and Peace Studies.

In conjunction with the book and similar assaults on those he disagrees with on his electronic news magazine, Horowitz has encouraged right-wing students to challenge the legitimacy of these professors on college campuses and has tried to get conservative student groups to get state legislatures to endorse so-called “student bill-of-rights legislation.”  Such legislation would establish oversight by state legislatures over colleges and universities, especially their hiring practices.

In conjunction with campaigns led by Lynn Cheney, the former vice-president’s wife, and Senator Joe Lieberman, senator from Connecticut, an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni was created.  As Giroux summarizes it, “. . . ACTA actively supports policing classroom knowledge, monitoring curricula, and limiting the autonomy of teachers and students as part of its larger assault on academic freedom” Giroux, 162).

Horowitz, ACTA, and others who attack the university have targeted visible academics for scrutiny and persecution.  Ward Churchill, a provocative professor of  Ethnic Studies, at the University of Colorado, was fired after a university committee was created to review his scholarship because of  controversial remarks he made off campus.  Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University political scientist who had written several books critical of interpreters of Israeli history and foreign policy, was denied tenure after a coordinated attack from outside his university led by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.  Distinguished political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been the subject of vitriol and false charges of anti-semitism because they published a long essay and book analyzing the “Israeli lobby.”

This latest red scare against higher education has had failures and successes.  Horowitz has had a visible presence on national cable television and radio.  He used it to attack some of the 101 dangerous professors.  However, his supporters have not been able to get any of their legislative proposals accepted.  Also, most university administrators have defended their faculty from the crude assaults from Horowitz and his followers.  In addition, many of the 101 and others like them have stepped up their public defenses of their scholarship and teaching.  It is unusual for any students to level attacks against targeted professors.  If anything, they defend the right of professors to be critical analysts in their subject areas in the classroom.

But, the new red scare has reinforced and legitimized the dominant paradigms in various academic disciples and created an environment of intellectual caution in the academy.  While the impacts are immeasurable, younger faculty cannot help but be intimidated by the public attacks on their senior colleagues.  The system of tenure and promotion in most institutions is vulnerable to public pressures, individual reviewer bias, and honest disagreements among faculty about whether published work and teaching is worthy of promotion and tenure.  Therefore, just as the administrators and faculty of the 1950s felt vulnerable to outside assault on their institutions, those passing judgment on today’s faculty might see the necessity of caution in hiring and retaining faculty whose perspectives are new, different, radical, and engaged.

Intellectuals, the Critical Organic Discourse Model, and Higher Education

The latest red scare has rekindled debate concerning the role of higher education and faculty as to research, teaching, and activism.  Those propagating the red scare insist that education should focus on celebrating American society, history, and institutions.  Anything less, to them, constitutes bias and a violation of the principles of academic freedom.  In addition, educators should not engage in political activism.  Being an academic and being a citizen must remain separate.

While ACTA and others complain about the negativity of those reflecting on United States history, more sophisticated red scare spokespersons, including Horowitz himself, emphasize one or another of two different approaches to the academy.  Some argue that the professorate must be “fair and balanced” in their academic work.  That is, they should in the classroom present all points of view, indicating favoritism to none.  Presumably their research and writing should strive for this balance as well.

Parallel to the fair and balanced position is the argument that teachers and researchers should be objective, that is, apolitical, and indifferent to the merits of competing sides to a conflict being studied.  The objectivity standard requires that the professor abstain, in his/her public role from participation in society.  It should be noted that some targets of the red scare attacks have responded by claiming they are fair and balanced and objective, and occasionally their students have defended them on these grounds as well.  In fact, when Horowitz has been asked on national television if he has proof that his victims have not been fair and balanced and objective in the classroom, he has been forced to admit that he has no way of knowing since he and his researchers had not had occasion to observe the professors in question.

While being fair, balanced, and objective are worthy goals, they stand in contradiction to the history of the university alluded to throughout this paper.  What I call the critical and organic discourse model is a more appropriate standard of scholarship, teaching, and engagement for these critical times.  It has several dimensions: speaking truth to power; critically reflecting on all institutions and processes in society, privileging unpopular ideas, and applying those ideas in social settings where they may be helpful to bring about change.

The last point, inspired by Gramsci’s idea of the “organic intellectual” and the discussion by Jacoby and others about the role of the “public intellectual,” suggest that knowledge in the end comes from and should be used in support of those in society who have been disenfranchised politically, economically, and culturally.  As Gramsci put it, “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader,’ and not just a simple orator. . .” (Gramsci, 10).  Gramsci’s “organic intellectual” is the intellectual who is connected to various social groups or movements and acts in concert with and stimulates the activities of such groups.  The organic intellectual in class society is linked to the project for historical change of the working class.  Historically the university has not served their needs, and those who embrace this model of teaching, research, and engagement should stand with the disenfranchised, such as the working class.

In sum, the most important elements of the critical and organic discourse model involve giving voice to the voiceless and engaging in education, research, and activity to pursue peace, social, and economic justice.


We have seen that the university historically has reflected and represented whatever ruling classes were prevalent at a given point in time.  We have also seen that the university is a site of contestation defined by a public ideology of academic freedom that justifies critical thought, pedagogy, and practice.  In this latter regard, Giroux points out, the university is an uncommon institution in modern life where full democratic participation in dialogue and critical reflection can take place.  Being fair, balanced, and objective is not enough to meet the needs of building a democratic space.  The university (its educators) must use this democratic space to engage students in reflection about the pursuit of peace in this violent world, and the striving for social and economic justice and against racism, sexism, and economic inequality.  (Some peace researchers have defended their practice by using a medical education metaphor.  Medical education is based on the study of creating health out of illness.  Fields like Peace Studies are based on the creation of a healthy body politic out of violence, discrimination, and inequality.)

Each approach to teaching in the university is evaluated on the basis of different “validation principles,” that is, the standards of judgment of success or failure.  For the crude celebration-of-America approach, teaching and writing is judged on the basis of how positive it has been about the American experience.  For the fairness and balance and objectivity approaches, validation comes from colleagues who judge the quotients of different points of view and/or the distance of the research and teaching from a point of view.  For the critical and organic discourse model, validation comes from the extent to which the ideas developed resonate with and reflect the voiceless and the extent to which the total product of the professors activities — teaching, research, and activism — have facilitated peace and justice or not.  This is indeed a very high standard but, given the world we live in, the only realistic standard that should be applied both to the university and those of us who work in it.


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Harry Targ is Professor at the Department of Political Science of Purdue University.  This article is the text of his public lecture, presented at the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 1 April 2008.