THE 
RED
CRITIQUE

 

Black Studies is Education in the General Interest 

Robert Faivre

 

3

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IMAGE AND IDEOLOGY

Main

 

Earlier this year, Black Studies programs in the State University of New York (SUNY) came under attack by Candace de Russy, a member of the SUNY Board of Trustees and one of the "new conservative activists" aiming to reshape higher education.[1] According to de Russy, the problem with Black Studies, as well as other "special interest studies" such as women's studies and ethnic studies, is that they are out-of-date, mostly non-academic, politically divisive, and—especially after September 11—"dangerous". Instead, de Russy proposes the closing of all "special interests" departments and replacing them with a "general interest," liberal-arts curriculum that would enable students to "live as free and prosperous citizens".[2]

Far from being a politically neutral argument in the "general interest" of all, however, de Russy's arguments for the "civilizing" of education are in the interest of the powerful only. Using the Bush administration's fundamentalist declaration of a "war against evil" as the pretext to unleash a brutal corporate agenda, her claims are part of a series of increasingly violent attacks against people of color in the wake of September 11 which are attempting to create a culture in which anyone or any organization that "differs" from or challenges the status quo is justifiably subject to the suspension of funding and social resources, if not, as in the case of thousands of immigrants in the United States, indefinite incarceration and "disappearance". A culture, in other words, deeply hostile to democracy and social justice.

In an attempt to pass off racist clichés as up-to-date educational theory, de Russy argues that while Black Studies programs were necessary in the 1960s in order to "tell the truth" about the "black experience", such programs have become unnecessary now because "the truth is being told".[3]  Leaving aside the fact that de Russy's own proposal for a "general studies" curriculum is based on the most well rehearsed and thoroughly "told" narratives of Western civilization, her reduction of the interests of Black Studies to the archiving of untold stories of racism in the United States assumes that racism as a structure of oppression is a thing of the past, fully "recovered" and anthologized and thus no longer required on college campuses. But the conditions which gave rise to such programs did not simply amount to untold truths or the absence of stories. Rather, untold stories are the effect—not the cause--of real material inequities in society, inequities which for most people of color have not disappeared. As William McAdoo, Chair of Africana Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, argues in his response to de Russy's claims, what de Russy and her supporters "are trying to obscure with their attacks on black studies and other such programs" is that "we still live in a racist society".[4]

For conservatives like de Russy any academic discipline today that continues to foreground issues of social inequality is a sure sign of what she calls "special interest studies," which are wrought with "ideological" bias. Special interest studies, according to de Russy, are "dominated by radical leftist academics steeped in the anti-Western ideology of cultural Marxism, that is, 'multiculturalism,'" and this is of particular concern, she insists, "especially in the wake of Sept. 11".[5] At the core of de Russy's cold-war claims is the equation of the critique of social inequalities—which seek to understand the history of current social arrangements so that they can be changed—and the ideas which reproduce existing inequalities, on the grounds that they create "imaginary" divisions among people in the interest of forwarding a dangerous agenda. Of course in doing so, de Russy posits a unity of interests among the citizens of the U.S. This is an imaginary unity, however, and not a real one. What the notion of "national" or "civilization-al" unity erases are the deep economic and political divisions that pervade U.S. society. The fact that, for instance, the demands for profit are systematically given priority over the fulfillment of need, and as a result, the percentage of Americans who cannot afford to meet even the most basic of needs such as food, housing, healthcare and education, is growing at an alarming rate, and particularly among women and people of color.

While claiming to speak in the interests of all, her corporate aim is thus clear. In marking as "dangerous" those courses and departments which seek to explain and change objective conditions, de Russy aims to cultivate a cultural sensibility in which any discussion of the contradictions which underlie American "unity" is understood as a punishable threat, a threat which she not so subtly suggests should be wiped out in the larger U.S. "war against terrorism". Her arguments help to set the stage for the return of McCarthy's "Un-American Activities" trials, and the enthusiastic embrace in civil society of the Bush administration's violent elimination of civil rights and civil liberties.

But it is the actual conditions of daily life for the majority of people in the U.S., and not analysis of their causes, that constitutes the real threat to people's lives. To argue otherwise, as de Russy does, is like saying that it is the doctors who research cancer in order to cure it that "create" cancer. For most citizens, it would be absurd and outrageous to suggest that cancer does not have an objective existence (and that funding should thus be withdrawn from cancer institutes), or that cancer kills people because they allow themselves to become convinced of an "imaginary" sickness. Nonetheless, this is the logic underlying de Russy's theory of "special interests" (a logic tellingly echoed not only in the Bush administration, but throughout popular culture).[6]

For, to remedy this divisive and "dangerous" situation that she claims is threatening higher education, de Russy basically proposes a "civilized" education which simply stops talking about existing divisions! That is, she proposes an education which does not fall prey to ideological "divisiveness" and indoctrination, but which provides people with "a firm grounding in general core knowledge" which will enable their freedom and prosperity.

It is such that her argument for a "general studies" curriculum as a means of enacting a "free and prosperous" citizenry is less about actually producing such conditions than it is about erasing all questions as to why the possibilities for "freedom and prosperity" are increasingly available only to the rich. How can people be free if there is a structure of relations in place that systematically prevents the vast majority from prospering? How can people prosper if they do not understand the causes of poverty and discrimination and how to eradicate them? Or, is de Russy's "general education" really only about the prosperity of the few? In fact, it is precisely education that safeguards the prosperity of the few that de Russy is attempting to rally citizens around, at a moment when the gap between haves and have-nots has never been wider.

Take, for instance, the theory of "difference" underlying the concept of "general education". On this view of education—which the new conservative activists have been (re)instating in colleges and universities over the past decade—race, ethnicity, and gender are seen as differences separated from social inequality. "Differences" in other words that are "purified" and made "safe" to discuss publicly, because the have been sanitized of any suggestion that they might be the result of a society divided by class.

This is part of what the "civilizing" of education actually means—making the question of "difference" so safe that there can be Provost's Lectures, films, festivals, and even courses that talk about difference without talking about what causes difference. The unsaid of civilizing education is, in other words, that those who are "civilized" accept and affirm both their "difference(s)" and the unequal relations of which they are a manifestation.

What kind of education simply re-confirms what one already knows and what already exists, but the crudest form of "indoctrination" (to use a favorite term of conservatives)? The purpose of education, if it is not to be a mockery of the founding principles of the democratic university, is to develop and expand knowledge for social progress of all, not reproducing the common sense for maintaining the privileges of the few. As Mary C. Rawlinson, Chair of Women's Studies at Stony Brook, and William McAdoo suggest in their critiques of de Russy's attack, what is necessary in a democratic nation is an education which provides an engagement with history and a "global perspective" that is able to connect experiences of oppression to the larger structures which produce them.[7]

Quite to the contrary, de Russy's "general education" is a form of education in the special class interest of those who own and control social institutions and resources. It is not an education in the general interests of citizens, the vast majority of whom are subject to the needs of profit. The special interest of the ruling class in global capitalism is to produce compliant, high-skill workers (adept at computer and high-tech communications systems) who are committed to "life-long learning" so as to remain employable within the social relations of exploitation (of which they have been allowed to have limited knowledge). That is, "skilled" workers who are culturally and historically illiterate, if not apathetic toward democracy—precisely the student produced by de Russy's "general education".

To put this differently, education, as Marx argues, is always a social "intervention". In a divided society, in which the few own and control social resources, those who do not own such resources are subject to the ideas of those who do. Education takes part in this struggle: it is either an intervention to change the structure of unequal relations, or it is an intervention to reproduce it.

The ruling class, in its influence over education, seeks to represent as the general interest, its own interest in producing "skilled" workers with no global or historical knowledge, thus denying the division of interest in class society through the imposition or assertion of a shared interest among all members of a nation or civilization. Invoking "nation" and "civilization" as the shared interest replaces the possibility of real unity through the overcoming of actual divisions and inequities with the imagined unity of interest in the U.S. and the West, and thus posits "others" as the problem.

What Black Studies and other programs in so-called "special interest studies" actually do is provide a site for intervention in education and society, that is, as Marx and Engels characterize it, to "alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class"[8]. They do so, in part, by explaining the history of the present, which is necessary to effectively wage the struggle for a just future.

Social inequities are real and not merely imagined. What is needed now more than ever before is education that explains existing inequities and enables their resolution in reality and not in the imaginary. Education that is, in the general interest of society. Black Studies programs, which help to develop an inclusive global perspective and comprehensive historical knowledge of social relations and of the means by which existing relations of oppression and exploitation can be transformed, are central to advancing the general interests of society.


[1] Annette Fuentes, "Trustees of the Right's Agenda", The Nation, October 5, 1998

[2] "Other Voices", Newsday, March 10, 2002

[3] "Other Voices"

[4] "Other Voices"

[5] "Black Scholarship", Newsday, February 20, 2002

[6] See also the November 2001 report by the conservative academic group headed by Lynne Cheney which "names names and criticizes professors for making statements 'short on patriotism and long on self-flagellation''' ("Conservatives Denounce Dissent," Patrick Healy, Boston Globe, November 13, 2001)

[7] See Mary C. Rawlinson, "De Russy Plays Bad Politics with Race Issues", The Stony Brook Statesman, April 11, 2002, and  William McAdoo, "Academic Racial Profiling and de Russy", The Stony Brook Statesman, April 15, 2002.

[8] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (in The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978)

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