Against the Neocons: Industrial Knowledge Production and the New Workforce

I start every semester, regardless of the class I’m facilitating with an announcement. The reason I teach is to help produce people capable of handling the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Democracy is based on notions of self-rule, the citizen as the reservoir of sovereignty, and egalitarian principles of equality balanced by liberty. Citizens must be capable of critically reflecting on their environment (informational, social, political, cultural, and etc.,.) in order to flesh out demands ideally reflective of their desires that then populate a deliberative process aimed at creating a community bound by the rule of law. The deliberative process is critical in creating a just society and is an extension of the deliberative capacities of  the parties involved. The United States has a long history of excluding groups from the deliberative arena. Some tactics have been a denial of voting rights, Jim Crow voting regulations, poll taxes, exclusive spaces in which political discussions took place, and the regulation and control of education. The most recent example of the latter is a discourse advanced by the American right that higher education should be responsible for workforce training and only workforce training as the country transitions into the new informational economy.

The information economy requires knowledge workers – people who are technically trained in producing and handling information products such as patents, and infrastructural technicians who can further and optimize the expanding technical infrastructure necessary for the dissemination and de-centralized production of knowledge products. Subsequently, this shift from the industrial production of physical products (such as cars) to the industrial production of knowledge products requires an expansion of higher education and an influx of students who will serve in emerging industries associated with knowledge production. The millennial generation is now the most highly educated (in terms of years spent in formal education) generation in US history because of the demands for knowledge workers in the new economy. This scares the hell out of top ranking neoconservatives.

The neocon ideology emerged out of the tumultuous student demonstrations of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of it’s founding members, such as Irving Kristol, were disturbed by the flurry of student action resisting the Vietnam War. The US “defeat” in Vietnam was not determined by personnel losses or even tactical military mistakes but by a defeat suffered at home. Vietnam Syndrome  as a fear, has haunted neoconservative circles since the realization that the US suffered its first major military loss since the war of 1812 because the American public was not willing to engage in strong, imperial military interventionism. Lefty-commie sympathizers bore the blame for spreading seditious ideology through university campuses that mobilized students to fight against the imperial ambitions of hawkish politicians, and for the civil rights of African-Americans and women. The memory of the defeat at home has had such lingering effects that George H.W. Bush, at the threshold of the first Gulf War assured his audience that “this will not be another Vietnam.” Bush spoke to both the neocon architects of that war and to an American public who had since seen no direct military commitment against a foreign nation apart from the discourse of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the subsequent campaigns against Colombia, Nicaragua and Chile.

Between Vietnam and the Gulf War neoconservative ideology hit its stride and crystallized from diffuse network of like-minded scholars, to a fully articulated and politically enfranchised movement. Neoconservative thinkers founded think-tanks and educational apparatuses parallel to places of higher learning while also assuming positions within prestigious private universities.  Leo Strauss is one of the more enigmatic contributors to neoconservative ideology and helped train cadre after cadre of powerful apparatchiks who advanced neoconservative agendas through the Republican party (Paul Wolfowitz being one of his more illustrious students). Part of the neoconservative ideology calls for the training of elite, well-to-do young men in the fine arts of government while harboring a general distrust for mass political enfranchisement. Part of the necon mission is to guide the nation in a paternalistic (ideally benevolent) fashion that molds both economy and civic morality. Above all, the public are not to be informed of matters of state, especially foreign policy, unless absolutely necessary for maintaining social control. The wisdom of the neoconservative disciple is derived from their specialization in the higher truths of government through a robust liberal arts education while supported through elite networks that assure their seat at the table. Elitism is a foundational element of neoconservative thought.

In a rare slip-up, the Texas Republican party announced in 2012 that critical thinking should not be included within the public school curriculum. More recently, GOP lawmakers have linked higher education to a discourse of workforce development while pundits, activists and talking heads have repeatedly attacked higher education as fake and universities as controlled by social justice warriors who indoctrinate students under the guise of offering an education. Vocational training has become part of the discourse around higher education as the nation looks to universities for the American dream of upward social mobility. This discursive shift has deep affinities with neoconservative ideology as workforce training narrowly focuses the mission of higher education away from producing democratic citizens broadly educated in the liberal arts to a labor market demanding specialized workers capable of producing and sustaining industrialized knowledge production.  Shifts away from producing democratic citizens capable of critically handling information to workers capable of handling critical information furthers the neocon ideological project by industrializing the production of human capital almost exclusively concerned with competing in a labor market. University doors are now things one passes through to receive workforce accreditation and the educational process has been trivialized as a credentialing performance.

Viewing education merely as something one goes through on the way to a job harms the body politic as easily quantifiable markers dominate administrative metrics of student success and return on investment. Uni-dimensional visions of what a “successful” student is reinforce the banking theory of education as measurement is dominated by GPA and post-graduation income. The banking theory of pedagogy offers an easy view of the student as an empty vessel receptive to knowledge rather than an active participant in its construction. The construction of knowledge requires a critical and innovative handling of information similar to the ideal deliberative process of mass democracy. The environment that conditions the demands placed on higher education, with its narrow focus on productivity and immediate workplace application of technical skills, myopically defines knowledge in terms of usefulness to a given industrial purpose. Industrial interests and trends within markets thus direct the development and dissemination of knowledge without recognizing the democratic potential of education in the fullest sense of fostering the development of citizens.

Freire’s recognition that the banking theory reinforces an existing and unquestioned ontology of knowledge about the relationship of knower to known is repeated in the discourse of workforce training and higher education as the student is alienated further from the process of handling information. The relationships of student-to-teacher, teacher-to-information and information-to-student within the banking model impose an understanding of how to handle information that casts the student as receiver and teacher as transmitter. The call and response evaluative metrics of standardized testing and closed right-and-wrong questions frame information as dead and in need of careful preservation thus promoting an inflexible relationship between the student and knowledge. Credentialing grounded in rote memorization of facts echos industrial applications of knowledge in terms of problem-and-answer mentalities that rarely question the system in which the problem arises. The uni-dimensional view of education advanced by the banking theory promotes neither innovative thinking about technical problems, nor advanced critical thinking about the broader informational ecology of democratic society.  As the US transitions from an industrial economy to modes of decentralized industrial knowledge production, we cannot sacrifice the democratic identity of higher education for the uni-dimensional mentality of the market. The banking theory of pedagogy must be dispensed with – even if it upsets the apple cart of some still stuck in mentalities of centralized industrial society. Above all, we must worry about what a society populated by automota that serve only their machines can become when democratic identity is lost.