University of Vermont

Kesson/Thinking Against from Within

"Thinking Against" "From Within":

Reconstituting the University as a Democratic Space

Kathleen Kesson

This article is a call to higher education leaders to promote democratic, transformative discourse within the University to truly examine the impact our actions or lack of actions have upon the world. It shows the interdependence the University and the world share, and that our actions within the University have complex and problematic implications in the world.

It is difficult to resist thinking millennially when barraged daily with reminders of apocalyptic events looming on the horizon: a "Y2K" glitch that threatens to throw the computerized data bases upon which many of our systems rely into chaos; the rapid and escalating rate of species extinction, now estimated to be happening at 1000 times the "normal" rate (Bowers, 1997, p. 201); the explosion of the world’s human population; the volatile and apparently fragile state of the trillion-dollar-a-day "world economy"; the proliferation of new viruses and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria; the loss of topsoil and adequate water for irrigation; and global warming and climate change. These and so many more situations remind us of the uncertainty and precariousness of life ahead. To ponder the state of the world in this way easily leads to a kind of holographic paralysis in which the critical examination of any single one of these problems leads inevitably to an awareness of the ways in which all of the dominant and interlocking systems of our time—economics, politics, and education, to name just a few—are inextricably linked in a destructive downward spiral. To ponder the role of the University in the century ahead requires first that we inquire honestly into both the source and the scope of the global issues currently presenting themselves and that we examine the ways that higher education is itself implicated in the various problems it proposes to solve. Only then might we begin to think imaginatively about a new role for the University, one that would engage students and faculty in genuine solutions for the seemingly intractable problems we face.

In a recent lecture at Vermont College in Montpelier (November 19, 1998), Benjamin Barber, one of the most influential democratic theorists writing about politics today, addressed the challenges facing democracy with the spread of globalization, which he defined as the increasing homogenization and integration of the cultures of the world into the global market. Democracy, he stated, was designed for a world of towns and villages. As decisions move further from the political centers of people’s everyday lives, the structures and mechanisms developed for a more face-to-face polis grow irrelevant. Decisions about when and where to downsize, where to relocate factories, where to locate waste dumps, over what roads to transport hazardous materials, and increasingly, what to teach in local public schools, are made, or strongly influenced, in corporate board rooms by people who have no stake in the local economy, the local culture, or the local ecosystem. Most of us feel relatively powerless to affect these large forces that impact our lives. Pseudo-cultural products linked to an entire world of information and entertainment are dispersed across the globe in a universal cultural market. Consumption, rather than democratic participation, has become the defining characteristic of human beings. We sacrifice democracy, Barber says, to a "totalizing consumerism." We seem to lack the will, or the insight, or the courage perhaps, to see through these new "soft encroachments" on our freedom, to understand the ways our space and our time are colonized by the fervent logic of private profits, or to discern the ways that privatization is eroding the possibilities for democratic action. Barber closed his compelling talk with the suggestion that educators have not yet begun to face these issues.

What is the relationship between the knowledge produced through research and reproduced through instruction in Universities and the anti-democratic trend of globalization of which Barber spoke? In a compellingly argued book, The Culture of Denial (1997), C. A. Bowers articulates the connections between the "high-status" (abstract and decontextualized) knowledge embodied in university curricula and the global spread of modern consciousness and a consumer lifestyle. In many countries there is a concentration of power in elite groups who share a common, often American University-based, educational background. These educated technocrats are heavily invested, psychologically and often financially, in Western, "high-status" knowledge and they benefit from the spread of the culture of modernism. While there is considerable variation in the ways that these elite groups interact with other social and political constituents of their cultures, "the common element shared by all elite groups promoting the globalization of modernization is the form of formal education they received" (p. 37). Modernization is accompanied by the loss of languages, the loss of cultural identity, the loss of traditional technologies that have evolved in response to local conditions, and the loss of bioregional sensibilities: "...wherever education advances, homogenization establishes itself. With every advancement of education or the educated, a ‘global monoculture spreads like an oil slick over the entire planet’" (Prakash & Esteva, 1998, p. 7). Benjamin Barber, in his talk at Vermont College, referred to this process as the triumph of "McWorld". What is not taken into consideration by most educated elites is the resulting upward trendline of human demands on the environment, and the concomitant downward trendline in the viability of natural systems that attends the modernization process. Based on scientists’ own projections about the limited window of opportunity we have to reverse these potentially catastrophic trajectories, Bowers argues for a radical rethinking, a "greening", of the university curriculum, and a serious investigation into the ways in which the high-status knowledge perpetuated by universities sustains ecologically and culturally problematic "myths", such as the myths of progress, autonomous individualism, growth and consumption.

I want to take up this argument that university-promoted knowledge is exacerbating the many interlocking crises we face, and think about how we who spend our lives in higher education might reframe our pedagogical mission in moral terms that begin to address the scope and complexity of our current dilemmas. How might we "think against" the tendency of "high-status" knowledge to replace local knowledge systems? How might we work with students and colleagues to interrupt the devastation of local culture and language that results from the spread of university-produced technological innovation? How can we make explicit and examine the collusion of the university-knowledge production machine with transnational corporate interests? How might we work to create learning environments in which ethical issues can be debated across the curriculum, and where students are encouraged to become self-critical about the uses to which their increasingly expensive educations will be put? And perhaps most important, how can we turn our classrooms into some of the few remaining democratic spaces in an era of privatization and corporatization?

Bill Readings, in an important contemporary analysis of the future of higher education (1996), notes that the historical mission of the University has been as a site of primary socialization, along with the family and the public school, for the subject/citizen of the nation state. Since the development of the German university, upon which the American higher education system was modeled, universities have existed largely to inculcate students with the culture of the nation state. With the process of globalization, says Readings, capitalism swallows up the nation state, and we are now faced with a situation in which a number of transnational corporations control vastly more wealth than the majority of countries. This decline of the nation state raises serious questions about the nature, role, and contemporary function of the University. Readings asks us to consider whether the university, thus stripped of its cultural mission, can become anything other than "a bureaucratic arm of the unipolar capitalist system" (p. 46). I want to hope that higher education’s mission is nobler than that of handmaiden to transnational capital, and will pose some principles to consider as we think about how we might "push from inside" for the radical rethinking of the role of the university in the 21st century.

I want to take a very strong position here—one that is guaranteed to meet with vociferous resistance. That position is simply this: most of the problems of global magnitude that we face have been initiated and perpetuated by highly educated people who have not been taught to assess the full consequences of their activities. Let us take one well-known example. The loss of genetic diversity in plant species, with its potentially catastrophic effects on agriculture worldwide, is largely due to the efforts of agricultural scientists to hybridize and select for traits consistent with the needs of agri-business: mechanized harvest, long storage, and transportation viability. It is quite well documented by now that the "Green Revolution", designed by highly educated people to increase food production in developing countries, actually resulted in hyper-dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides sold by the same companies that marketed the hybrid seeds. The application of these chemicals has resulted in the pollution of water tables, erosion of topsoil, and diseases, including cancers and sterility, of farm workers. Local farmers everywhere, who once maintained stocks of non-hybrid seeds from generation to generation from which they selected for adaptation to local growing conditions, are now dependent on transnational corporations for their yearly quota of hybrid seeds, and the necessary chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, all of which contribute heavily to the degradation of their environment. It is a sad story with a familiar plot: subsistence farmers, operating from a traditional base of knowledge, often cannot afford the machinery or the chemical inputs necessary to remain viable in this "modern" system and are forced out of production to make way for the development of an export economy. The result? Cultural dislocation, increased poverty, environmental degradation, and the loss of both traditional knowledge and traditional species. Many other stories could be used as exemplars to demonstrate the way in which modern knowledge, based on scientific research and technological innovation, and promoted universally in the name of "human progress" by university-educated people, has resulted in the destruction of local eco-systems, economies, and cultures.

We need not only look to other developing countries to examine the impact of "high-status" knowledge. A contemporary university education in our own country is designed to create a class of upwardly mobile professionals who are prepared to leave their communities and follow a career path. Increased schooling promises liberation from the constraints of tradition, community, and working class consciousness. The language games and subject matter of a university education often distance educated people from their families and former social networks, and foster allegiances instead to "fields of knowledge" and corporate concerns. With the diminishing importance of the liberal arts and the rise of vocational higher education, most U.S. university students are now primarily engaged in an accreditation process to prepare themselves for competition in the global marketplace. Little in their experience inspires them to become community activists for social change or transformative, engaged intellectuals, in the way students of the 1960s were inspired. Student passivity in the face of the enormous global problems we face is the rule rather than the exception, and career seems to have transcended social commitment in the lives of most students. Once educated, professionals tend to live and work and play in lifestyle enclaves rather than in heterogeneous communities, thus perpetuating social class stratification and separation based on educational capital.

But what about the role of critique in higher education, and movements within the Academy such as deconstruction, multiculturalism, critical theory, and cultural studies that purport to reveal and analyze relations of knowledge, power, and desire in the context of global capitalism? These movements in the humanities are surely the first opportunity that many students have for developing a systematic critique of modern society. Important as they may be however, their position in the Academy is usually marginal and their influence minimal. Critical educators often meet with resistance and overt hostility to their ideas and suffer criticisms about the politicization of the curriculum. In an ironic way, the very existence of dissident discourses in the corporate university strengthens the institution in an important way, demonstrating the tolerance, openness, and academic freedom in this marketplace of ideas. The "current gains in critical freedom", says Readings, "are being achieved in direct proportion to the reduction in their general social significance" (1996, p. 169). And in another ironic twist, the major achievement of "postmodern" discourses, with the exception of critical theory, has been the relativizing of beliefs, values, and cultural norms, a process that has diminished the possibility of developing a shared moral position on anything. Peter McLaren (1998) notes that while postmodernism has made important advances in understanding the construction of identity and contributed to the radical democratic project, it has demonstrated limited utility as a critique of capitalism. He quotes Glenn Rikowski, who asserts an even more fervent critique of Left postmodernism, suggesting that it "merely succeeds in providing complacent cocktail-bar academic gloss for the New Right project of marketising education and deepening the rule of capital within the realm of education and training" (in McLaren, 1998, p. 443). I would suggest that we need to invigorate the linguistically sophisticated and intellectually compelling postmodern discourses with a spirit of ethics and social responsibility. In the absence of such a focus, the demands of the competitive marketplace will continue to override most other human endeavors in the Academy: instrumental intelligence, information processing, high performance and highly polished products will persist as the most highly valued attributes of a university education.

In the interest of establishing a critical framework, I may have overstated my case. Lest I be thought guilty of gross generalizations, let me say for the record that many wise and well-intentioned people teach in universities, that there are classrooms where serious discussions of value take place, and that the university plays a role in the development of the kind of critical thinking essential to a thriving democracy. But a college or university is very much a creature of its time, and it is impossible to discuss the current and future state of the institution without acknowledging the intense pressures exerted on it by the processes of globalization. In the new corporate university, students are "consumers" and "customers", standards represent "value-for-money" on an evaluative scale, "total quality management" is a guiding administrative ethos, and "excellence" has become the unifying principle of the contemporary university, though "as an integrating principle, excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential" (Readings, 1996, p. 22). We live in a time when virtually all aspects of our lives are becoming commodified and new markets are rapidly created to fulfill every conceivable human desire. In this system, knowledge is a commodity like any other resource, and universities must produce adequate amounts of this commodity to justify the vast sums of research and development money fed to them by foundations, private corporations, and the government. What is inadequately recognized by most university professionals is that both "pure" and applied research and the resulting technological innovations, whether they be in bio-technology, computer science, or aerospace engineering, to name just a few, lead to dramatic changes in our own and other cultures—changes with profound moral and ethical dimensions. The extreme specialization and narrowness of focus of knowledge producers in higher education, according to Bowers (1997), has led to a lack of self-reflection about our role as agents of radical cultural change. Our failure to recognize the cultural implications of our research, coupled with the lack of a critical public discourse about new technologies and social initiatives, highlights the failure of the university to foster the development of the communicative competence (Bowers, 1984, p. 28) and critical intelligence necessary to understand the fundamental changes taking place on a global scale.

If the university is no longer the dispenser of culture to the citizen/subject of the nation state, and if we refuse to accept the role of supporting actor in the drama of global capitalism, what possibilities are left for the university of the next century? Higher education is under increasing pressures to redefine itself, given a number of developments: the increasing availability of "information" on the global information network; the expansion of job-specific education and training by corporations; a more competitive educational environment, in which new flexible institutions are offering educational skills and competencies at a lower cost than many traditional universities; and the gradual withdrawal of public support from higher education (Ramaley, 1998). Given these pressures, I want to argue here for a renewed commitment to the notion of the University as a site for "educating for ethical decision-making and social responsibility," the title of a recent conference sponsored by the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at The University of Vermont. Given the increasing privatization of every area of life, perhaps best exemplified by the way that shopping malls have replaced town squares, we need to claim the university as a site for democratic conversations, a place where citizens can deliberate over the ethical dimensions of their activities. I am not arguing for a role for the university as moral center, but I do believe it has a role to play as a moral compass. We in the university must "think against" the global currents that threaten our democratic freedoms and way of life "from within" our own walls, and establish spaces for informed reflection, social critique, ecological awareness, democratic participation, and deliberative action. Shifting "from the current cultural pathway that emphasizes individualism, technological mastery of nature, and the equating of a consumer lifestyle with personal success, to a pathway that emphasizes the noncommodified relationships within the community and environment" (Bowers, 197, p. 206) will involve tremendous changes in the way we in higher education do things. A comprehensive analysis of all of the components of this endeavor is well beyond the scope of this paper, which after all, is just intended to "spark" a moral conversation. In this final section, however, I will propose eight principles that I hope will inform a renewed commitment to the university as a site for democratic conversations and ethical deliberations over the uses to which the knowledge generated and distributed within its own walls is applied.

Replace "holographic paralysis" with "holographic analysis". In the opening paragraph of this piece, I noted the paralysis that results from seeing the systemic dimensions of the overwhelming global problems. I am convinced that the pain of seeing this totality is at least partly responsible for the retreat into careerism and consumerism that characterizes so many students today. We need to acknowledge the pain and perplexity caused by this awareness, but then guide students into the broad and systemic analysis demanded by the scope of the problems. This requires that faculty shift from the narrow focus often required to obtain tenure and build a career to a more interdisciplinary, holistic perspective. We need to become astute generalists, as well as specialists, and we ourselves need to study the systemic nature of problems. Interdisciplinary and team teaching is one important move in this direction. Leaders and administrators in higher education can support this by altering the reward structures in higher education to recognize the vital role of innovative forms of teaching in the development of student understanding of global problems.

Engage students in the solution of significant problems. In Democracy and Education, Dewey disputed the idea that education should be about preparing students for life in the future. While not disregarding the continuous unfolding of the present into the future, he believed that "every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible. Then, as the present merges insensibly into the future, the future is taken care of" (1916, p. 56). Rather than focus on the memorization of immense amounts of data, much of which will dissipate after the final exam, students should be engaged in meaningful problem-solving activities that demand both the application of what has already been learned and continuous inputs of new information in an action/reflection cycle. Problems should be posed that connect with interests and concerns of the students, so that long-term social commitments might result from their experiences. Passionate involvement in a quest or a cause is a sure predictor of lifelong learning. Solving problems, even local and seemingly small problems, helps nurture the confidence that problems are indeed soluble, and may encourage students to attempt to unravel increasingly complex problems.

Take to the streets. We need to move the site of learning outside the university walls into the community so that students might gain first-hand knowledge of social problems and their human dimension. We need to support institutional efforts at service, community-based, and project-centered learning, and ensure that these initiatives are both personally meaningful to the students and academically rigorous. These kinds of learning activities must be grounded in critical reflection and involve the kind of "holographic analysis" mentioned above, so that the experiences might be genuinely transformative for both the individual and the society rather than merely ameliorative. Feeding hungry people in a soup kitchen may alleviate momentary hunger, and it may make the service-learner feel momentarily righteous, but such activity does little in itself to reveal the systemic causes of hunger, or to initiate long-term solutions to the problem. When knowledge production in the university classroom is linked with informed efforts to solve problems in the local community, students get a sense that their efforts can lead to genuine improvements in the quality of life. Combined with a comprehensive, rigorous analysis, such service projects may indeed lead to long-term commitments on the part of students, and we need to provide information about career opportunities in the non-profit and civil sectors of society that can utilize the idealism and sense of social responsibility gained from such learning. In the field, students learn that applied knowledge always has social consequences, and faculty with a "systemic" understanding can help illuminate the sometimes unforeseen and complicated consequences of their activities.

Ethics is not an elective. Skepticism and deconstruction are valuable intellectual tools that keep us from slipping into dogmatism. An engaged citizenry in a thriving democracy, however, is continuously faced with moral dilemmas and ethical decisions that demand positive rather than negative intellectual labor. Lest students leave the university with the inclination to make decisions purely on the basis of pragmatism, or the "bottom line," they need to be educated to think about the ethical dimensions of all of their decisions. The study of ethics in the university is most often an elective, leaving students with the impression that ethical decision-making and moral action are optional. When ethics are studied, it is usually within a narrow career focus such as medical ethics or business ethics. But if students are to graduate from universities with an education that prepares them for life in a complex and turbulent democracy, their ethical education needs to be much broader: every citizen needs to be able to understand the arguments around complicated issues such as genetic technologies, global warming, and nuclear fusion. And they will need to understand not just the scientific debates but the vast cultural impact of the issues.

Acknowledge the cultural specificity of university knowledge. Most students leave higher education thinking that the knowledge they have received is value-free knowledge, gained from objective sources, and that it has universal applications. They learn that "other" cultures have biases, traditions, and superstitions, but that they have received a "neutral" education. We need to "think against" this taken-for-granted notion that modern knowledge is a universal and unique form of truth, and educate students instead, to understand it as a culturally specific form of knowledge, with a particular set of cultural results. For example, the particular form of modern knowledge embodied in science supposes a detached observer and the separation of the knowing subject from the known object. It further assumes that reason is necessarily separated from emotion, that scientists are free from bias, and that there is a linear progression of knowledge, resulting in the idea of progress. Feminist philosophers of science, as well as indigenous people who do not experience themselves as separate from a network of biotic relations, have critiqued this approach to knowledge for its contributions to the environmental crisis. The rational "technological" form of consciousness sees the world in a particular way, and tends toward the manipulation and exploitation of the world. This is a culturally specific way of knowing, and it is incompatible with many of the more enduring traditions of the world. Many of the world’s people, rather than seeing themselves as masters of nature understand themselves as deeply connected with plants, animals, and other humans in a complex web of relationships in which their own well-being is intimately coupled with the well-being of the whole. We need to study these "other" ways of knowing, contrast them with modern ways of knowing, and draw out the connections between ways of knowing and the uses to which knowledge is put.

Question the authority of knowledge. We need to be courageous enough to interrogate with our students the knowledge encountered in higher education classrooms. We need to ask the important questions: Whose knowledge is this? How was it created? Who paid for the research? What interests does it serve? What conflicts characterized its generation? How might it be applied? How might it be misapplied? What radical or disruptive cultural changes might occur as a result of its application? What will the effects of this knowledge be seven generations from this moment? This epistemological focus needs to be located not only in philosophy and literary criticism classes, but across the curriculum. Many students are uncomfortable with this form of "deconstruction" and faculty may be accused of "being political," as though the seemingly neutral curriculum does not embody a particular political set of interests. We need to learn to live with the discomfort of posing troubling questions, confident that this effort will enhance the democratic capacities of our students.

Practice democracy in the classroom. If we hope to educate people to be active, engaged democratic citizens, and if we hope that the university classroom might be a place where they learn to do this, then we must begin to model democratic processes through more democratic pedagogies. A democratic pedagogy recognizes that students are not products on an assembly line--they are unique individuals with complex sets of interests, emotions, cares, and concerns. They should not have to leave the persons they are outside the classroom. Students have a right to be heard, to practice articulating complicated ideas, and to express half-formed opinions. They have a right to pose questions they would like to have answered through the course of study they are engaged in, and they have a right to shape their learning in ways that will be most productive for them. One of the hallmarks of a democratic society is the freedom to make innumerable choices--about where to live, who to live with, what to eat, what to work at, what to read and what to think. The university classroom should be a place where intelligent choice is exercised--over what to study, how to study, and how to express one’s learning. As members of a democratic classroom community, teachers also have rights--to pose problems, to bring in resources, and to move the learning toward higher levels of cognition, critical thinking, and creativity. A democratic classroom is characterized by open and participatory dialogue, caring and concern, attention to identity and difference, the negotiation of learning and knowledge production, and a commitment to reveal the hidden dynamics of power, so that students can come to appreciate the undemocratic forces at work in their lives, and work to transform them.

Teach for the well-being of subsequent generations. We have had great difficulty, as a culture, coming to terms with the moral responsibility we bear to the larger biotic community. We seem unable or unwilling to rethink our obligations to other species, or even to the generations of humans that will follow us. Holes in the ozone, climate changes, and environmental diseases do not seem to be enough to convince us to buy fewer cars, institute pollution-reducing forms of mass transit, stop using pesticides on our food, or invest in solar and wind power, at least on the scale that seems called for. Bowers (1997) suggests that this inertia is partly due to the conflicts we experience in relation to a number of our cherished liberal notions: the "emphasis on individual freedom, the emancipatory power of critical reflection and instrumental rationalism, and the expectation that change represents a continual expansion of human possibilities" (p. 120). We will not be fulfilling our moral obligations to our students if we do not work to make some of the fundamental cultural myths contributing to the multiple and interlocking global crises—individualism, consumption, the linear accumulation of knowledge, unrestrained growth, progress, expansion, profit—problematic. Many of these myths, unfortunately, are inextricably entwined with the higher education curricula. If we are serious about unraveling these myths, we are talking about a fundamental rethinking, not just of the curricula, but of the very aims and purposes of postsecondary education. Bowers closes his profound and important book by reminding us that

...the cultural form of consciousness reinforced in the educational institutions that help advance high-status forms of knowledge are imminent in the system of dams that obstruct the migration of salmon, in the air that carries the chemicals that are altering the forms of life that exist in the soil, lakes, and rivers, and in the shopping malls that depend upon subsistence culture being economically "developed" in ways that integrate them into a commodity-oriented economy. (p. 262)

We need to think very carefully about the ways in which the forms of knowledge promoted within the university are implicated in the social, cultural, and environmental crises that we face. We need to ask ourselves whether we are perpetuating a form of cultural consciousness that is imminent in the very problems we hope to educate our students to solve. We need to examine our own curricula and classroom practices to assess the degree to which we are fostering communicative competence (Bowers, 1984, p. 28), democratic processes, and epistemological savvy in our students. We need to "think against" "from within" about the role of our own universities in the emerging global system and encourage the kind of moral and intellectual leadership from our administrations that will ask the important questions about the role of the university in the 21st century. It is soon upon us.


Bowers, C. A. (1984). The promise of theory: Education and the politics of cultural change. New York: Longman.

Bowers, C. A. (1997). The culture of denial: Why the environmental movement needs a strategy for reforming Universities and public schools. New York: SUNY Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

McLaren, P. (Fall 1998). Revolutionary pedagogy in post-revolutionary times: Rethinking the political economy of critical education. Educational Theory, 48(4).

Prakash, M. S. & Esteva, G. (1998). Escaping education: Living as learning within grassroots cultures. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Ramaley, J. (1998). The making of a budget: Strategic thinking at a public research university. The Vermont Connection, 19, 8-15.

Readings, B. (1996). The University in ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rikowski, G. (1996). Left alone: End time for marxist educational theory. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 17(4), p. 442.

Kathleen Kesson is Research Associate Professor in the College of Education and Social Services at The University of Vermont, where she directs the John Dewey Project on Progessive Education. She also directs the Teacher Education Program at Goddard College, a progressive experimental college in Central Vermont. Her most recent book (with Jim Henderson) is Understanding Democratic Curriculum Leadership (Teacher's College Press, 1999).

Last modified May 26 2010 02:40 PM

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