From Training Corporate Cogs to Teaching the Real Thing: Stanley Aronowitz’s Vision for Transforming Higher Education

In The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning, Stanley Aronowitz begins by boldly asserting “there is little that would qualify as higher learning in the United States” (Aronowitz xvii). Loosely defining ‘higher learning’ as the process by which “students are broadly and critically exposed to the legacy of Western intellectual culture and to those of the Southern Hemisphere and the East,” Aronowitz proceeds to analyze contemporary colleges and universities as Knowledge Factories, places in which increased vocationalization, ‘training,’ and discipline specialization has come at the expense of true higher learning (xvii-xviii).

Never one to mince words, Aronowitz classifies today’s recent college graduate as a “techno-idiot” (172) and notes how, as part of the university-corporate complex, schools now merely exist to “train kids to become cogs in the corporate capitalist machine” (3). Aronowitz traces the origins of this shift to a variety of factors, including the fact that decreased government funding for education has prompted universities to solicit support from the private sector, usually in the form of corporate partnerships. Not surprisingly, as a result of such partnerships, administrators and faculty “wear the badge of corporate servants proudly” (81) and often “rush to tailor their intellectual and cultural capital to the needs of these corporations” (36).

Equally problematic, he notes, is the reluctance on the part of professors at public research universities to join in unionization efforts to address some of these ills, including the increasing casualization of their profession in the form of T.A. and adjunct labor. Aronowitz blames in part the relative material successes and consequent “self-image” of such professors who view themselves more as “independent entrepreneurs or scholars … exempt from the imperative of collective action” (92). Regrettably, he observes, “most of these faculty members remain indifferent, if not antagonistic to unionism” (93).

Returning to the question of what constitutes ‘true’ higher learning, in the latter half of the book Aronowitz again asserts the need to base education on a “critical appropriation of the main currents of human knowledge” (126). Such a “critical appropriation” entails that students learn to “swim against the current” by challenging and possibly reversing the “technical divisions that fragment society” (126).

Scorning current conceptualizations of so-called “liberal education” as nothing more than “a Chinese menu of more or less disconnected courses masquerading as ‘breadth’” (128), Aronowitz devotes the last chapter of his book to proposing a somewhat radical curriculum and pedagogy “whose aim is to foster learning, even wisdom” (155). Proposing an impressive and perhaps almost impossibly ambitious two-year curriculum that systematically investigates different historical periods by exploring the interactions between history, literature, science, and philosophy, Aronowitz consistently emphasizes a relentless contextualization of canonical texts and, most importantly, the cultivation of a “habit of reflexivity” (189).

Given the unfortunate state of affairs plaguing our current university-corporate complex, it’s understandable that one might be skeptical of the practicality of Aronowitz’s alternate model. Yet I couldn’t help feeling intrigued and excited by its possibility. If possessing a B.A. currently means nothing more than the fact that one can sufficiently “tolerate boredom and knows how to follow rules” (10), Aronowitz’s vision is refreshingly appealing in its simple emphasis on “learning the real thing” (192).

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