Who Decides What You’re Allowed to Learn? Our Knowledge Economy Sellout

Too much of what we read in the literature for educators is over-determined by the use knowledge has for our pocketbooks or for the nation-state or Silicon Valley or some startup.

Recently, a few English professors here at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward, California, had an email dialogue about the meanings of success for students in our basic skills program. Several cited Debra Humphreys’s 2012 article “What’s Wrong With the Completion Agenda—And What Can We Do About It,” which took issue with the movement to collect better data about students’ progress toward degrees, and policies that incentivize increased graduation rates.

Like Humphreys, who warns of “the danger of a completion-only approach,” my colleagues held out hope that we could be more skeptical readers of what constitutes “success data” and how it’s linked to “increasing graduation rates.” I agreed and added a question: Shouldn’t educators also be more skeptical about the relation between knowledge and the workplace and the consumerist paradigms that have invaded our consciousness, whether or not we support or balk at “the completion agenda?”

The assumption in both camps is that knowledge is a product, a skill to be sold, where we too uncritically follow so many of capital’s leads. Here is President Obama’s lead: “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity.” Or Humphreys’: “The economy may be demanding more workers with higher education degrees… but it is also demanding that all workers have broader knowledge and skills as well.”

Why have we followed the language of knowledge as product not just in but for the global economy, so that knowledge serves multiple masters in order to serve the grand master: the economy that “demands” and that we, as educators, oblige? A little history might be useful.

In 1963, Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California system amid the free-speech movement, published The Uses of the University. He used the term “the multiversity” to describe the multiple purposes of the contemporary university as opposed to the university of old. At the multiversity, faculty would no longer constitute what Kerr saw as a centralized, authoritative, elitist body cloistered in their ivory towers in order to share with students (or hoard for themselves) knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge,” as Kerr coined it, would absorb metaphors of production and consumption—“the knowledge industry”—and cater to multiple concerns and agendas, now to be dispensed in the service of business interests, research venues, and national demands.

Activists in the free-speech movement were suspicious. They thought the argument for the multiversity as a critique of the elitist university was a sham meant to pacify democratic desires “to educate previously unimaginable numbers of students”—or what today we might call “a diverse student body.” Critics argued the multiversity was actually meant to suppress intellectual inquiry under the cover of serving “diverse” interests and over-determinedly linking students’ objectives with “the workplace” or service to the nation. Kerr’s multiversity was seen by some as a clever, coded educational design appearing to expose students to multiple fields of inquiry, where “knowledge production” was taking place, but, in reality, was channeling uses of knowledge into discrete frames representing particular outside interests. As such, the purposes of the multiversity betrayed any kind of independent thinking that could be used for political, cultural, and social liberation and imagination.

Fifty years later, community colleges often make similar claims. Rightly, their mission is to teach a heterogeneous student body with a range of interests and goals, so that everybody is seen as being offered a legitimate seat at the table of higher education. Teachers appear practical and socially conscious when they look as if they understand the needs of all students and their desire “to succeed in the workplace.” In the process, however, what is not being noticed is how often teachers and administrators, in attempting “to serve” these needs, have been co-opted by the productivist/consumerist paradigm of the knowledge industry. As a critic of Kerr said at the time—we have become the “anti-university,” “a conglomerate merger” serving multiple masters—and we will “teach anything that we can get anybody to pay for.”

This is Kerr in 1963: What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile did for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.

Knowledge is a train. Knowledge is a car. Knowledge is, why not, an ear of corn to sell. Pick what you will to swallow as market-driven national produce. When this kind of language gains momentum and permeates the rhetoric we hear—from Obama to well-meaning educators addressing either side of “the completion agenda” argument—then we conflate knowledge with what is necessary for the workplace or with what is required for national growth and service, until it seems we have subconsciously assumed these are our primary concerns as educators and naturally belong together—and how dare anyone think that learning and the knowledge derived from it can be about anything else? What started gaining traction in 1963 has bulldozed the roads in 2015.

These knowledge requirements reflect the historian Kenneth Burke’s phrase, from 1937, “the bureaucratization of the imaginative:”

An imaginative possibility (usually at the start Utopian) is bureaucratized when it is embodied in the realities of a social texture, in all the complexity of language and habits, in the property relationships, the methods of government, production and distribution, and in the development of rituals that re-enforce the same emphasis.

The question is: What kinds of rituals have educators developed that “re-enforce the same emphasis?” Humphreys, for example, writes of English professors concerned with “the ritual” that is the research project. Some instructors, pushing the completion agenda for students to graduate, want to cut the research projects from their writing classes. Other instructors, however, follow employers who claim students completing research projects are more likely to succeed in the workplace.

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The premise for both sides is the same, where the ritual we have developed around the role of the research paper becomes a prime example of “an imaginative possibility” that we have bureaucratized and “embodied in the realities of a social texture.” In both cases, faculty argue yay or nay for a research project relevant to the concerns of the workplace. It is hard for me to figure out how students in my writing class—studying texts on how powerless communities can organize for change—when they read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and then research his claims about the effects in the 1950s of North African liberation movements on Supreme Court decisions, can have that “research” translate into future “success in the workplace” (unless you want to sharpen the same tired old saw about honing critical-thinking skills, which they need in the workplace). As a teacher fascinated by student learning, I am baffled by how any research project I assign serves the economy or the nation-state or anyone but the consciousness of the students.

Knowledge certainly is useful. And I can be as pragmatic as the next teacher, but so much of what we read in the literature for educators is over-determined by the use knowledge has for our pocketbooks or for the nation-state or for research interests of Silicon Valley or some dot-com startup. The contemporary rhetoric around the purpose of education offers very little to imagine beyond.

Before I am accused of being too impractical or not understanding the needs of our students, well, let’s define their needs. Or for those who think this is some sentimental call for appreciation of the humanities, it is not. Or for those who think I am calling for a return to the ivory tower and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, I am not.

What I am proposing is that we try on the clothes of the ancients as well as some iconoclastic moderns and consider the transformative, perhaps even visionary possibilities for knowledge: to look to particular moments in time when the frame for the idea of knowledge was not as narrow as it is today. A writer like Duncan McNaughton, for example, thinks of the kinds of knowledge conceived by poets who “compose in the tradition of the Homeric opus, which was into Roman times understood, by those who could, precisely as of ‘Homer was an astronomer’ (Heraklitos)—that is, a work of cosmology rehearsing, in its fashion… with all else it so marvelously brings forward, thousands of years of cosmological observation.” Think of it: Homer, the poet, was an astronomer. Today we would call that revelation: “cross-disciplinary.” Or imagine the idea that ancient geographical knowledge of the Mediterranean could be gleaned and recovered from a study of place names in The Odyssey dependent on Phoenician maritime logs. And that some knowledge, perhaps even some wisdom, could follow from this method of exploration.

Or consider the landscape scholar John Stilgoe or the philosopher Charles Stein, both of whom speak about the poet Charles Olson’s view of knowledge, organized and imagined according to the comprehension of the landscape one inhabits: What better way for community college faculty and students to know their particular communities than by localizing the culture and politics and ecology of the places they live.

This is Stein:

Part of Olsons picture is a totally different principle about how to organize knowledge. So instead of having a series of different disciplines which rise to an abstract generality and tell you about politics throughout the world, you see how politics works in a particular location and that becomes a radically different way of organizing human knowledge.

At Chabot College, students have figured out some of these radically different ways of organizing human knowledge in their “particular location.” They have brought to life Michael Fielding’s highest standard of student voice—Intergenerational Lived Democracy—by developing a program called Passion and Purpose. Students shaped the curriculum, trained teachers to teach it, worked with the institution to design a space that looks like an art studio crossed with a dorm room. In the Passion and Purpose class, students spearhead dozens of campus and community projects, including: a 7,000-square-foot Knowledge Garden, Latinas With Purpose, AC Transit Bus Pass Initiative, Vagina Festival, Peer Tutoring on campus and in the community, Gaza/Israel conference, the Dashy Girl Project (raising money to purchase feminine sanitary products for shipment to girls in Kenya), and much more. All the projects are student-chosen, and arise out of desire to comprehend the landscape and get to know the ecology of a place they inhabit and for which they care.

And so what if we took, as another powerful, pedagogical example of this kind of localized organization of human knowledge, Adrienne Rich’s curriculum at CUNY between 1968 and 1974. Rich taught writing in the SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), which prepared black and Puerto Rican students for college studies. Rich knew something about the search for knowledge. In one of her course descriptions (PDF), she asked students how, indeed, is their knowledge formed in a particular place, at a particular time, so that they can recognize who they are and what they want to be a part of:



—a brainwashed, passive, obedient object, to be fed into the machine that has produced the ghettoes, Vietnam, drug addiction, unemployment, spiraling prices, brutalization of men in mass society, the spoilage of the earth and ocean?

—an unemployable B.A. or B.S. whose diploma cannot guarantee him a job and who has learned little except how to pass exams?

—a powerless person, ignorant of the ways in which you might survive, and help your brothers and sisters survive, the rest of this century?

Will you know how to analyze your situation, criticize the way things are being run, articulate your needs, demand your human rights, frame meaningful questions, recognize bullshit answers?


Almost 50 years later, the question is still relevant: “Who decides what you are allowed to learn?” Who decides what metaphors we use to speak of knowledge? And can we still learn how knowledge is organized by people in a particular location, together with the communities in which we teach?

The poet Robert Duncan, at the time of Kerr’s book, wrote a warning poem, “The Multiversity.” It looks back to the future and reminds us whose interests are being served and what “news” is being broadcast through “the knowledge industry,” then and now. It begins:

Not men but heads of the hydra his false faces in which authority lieshired minds of private interests over us Here: Kerr (behind him, heads of the Bank of America the Tribune, heads of usury, heads of war) the worm’s mouthpiece spreadswhat it wishes its own false news: