Sunday, March 9, 2014

Education as the site of struggle.

In Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses Althusser makes the assertion that education has become the dominant ISA.  Certainly, this proclamation – while apt – was not surprising.  First it pairs nicely with Gramsci’s conception of the traditional intellectual.  That is to say, if those who are supported by the state tend to theorize in favor of hegemonic structures, it stands to reason that the intuitions that manage would also serve hegemonic interests.  
                Beyond this theoretical juncture, I have to say that personal experience has verified the pressure within higher education to conform curriculum to the training of workers. At all three universities I have taught, I have been encouraged to justify my classes in terms of the “real world” (read capitalist) skills they would develop in the students.  Additionally, the majority of students I have talked to are interested in their degrees only insofar as it gets them a higher paying job. Based on this, I find it difficult to find fault with Althusser’s proclamations.
                Luckily, neither Althusser, nor Gramsci, suggest the case is hopeless for us as academics.  While both note that the systems are work pervasively in the favor of capital, they also suggest there is room for resistance.  But what ought to be the nature of that resistance? Althusser calls those teachers that attempt to educate outside ISA norms “heroes.”   Gramsci moves it a step further, noting that if traditional intellectuals work in concert with organic intellectuals they can foster the “expansive hegemony” that allows resistance to hegemonic forces.
                Does this mean that the better use of academic time is field work?  Working with those engaged in struggle to help unify their causes.  Or should we focus more on honing classroom material? Working to making sure that we try to help students move beyond dominant ideological positions.  Of course, these are by no means mutually exclusive, but as different universities prioritize different focuses for professors it does seem as a choice one has to make when plotting an academic future.



  1. Jon,

    It probably comes as no surprise that my brain started churning about my role as an educator when Althusser began discussing the ideology re-produced in the educational system.

    Much like getting slapped in the face with the realization you have copious amounts of privilege, I’ve been reeling the last week accepting my position as a traditional intellectual. Granted, I’m probably more in a weird hybrid since my connection to political organizing has only recently fizzled for a strict academic career, but my end game is to become a traditional intellectual. If indeed “… there is no practice in general, but only distinct practices” (p. 62) that “ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the mastery of its ‘practice’” (p. 89), then how can I curb this system of domination? Is there still residue of the dominant, capitalist ideology lodged somewhere in my brain?

    Chances are, yes, yes in fact I probably fall somewhere in the problematic, but perhaps a reframing is useful. Unless we buy into the belief that economic and social conditions (redundant, I know) must get worse before we will experience revolution, our students need skills to survive. Most must make a wage to sustain their lives, or they will perish in society. The emphasis of instruction should be the unpacking of ideologies and the equipping of tools for living: critical lens, language to discuss injustice, democratic tools for organizing in the work place or other common places, etc. You’re right in that it isn’t a dichotomy, but there is an icky justification as to why students learn these business skills of very direct practice as opposed to the creativity we proudly promote and foster in humanities majors.

  2. Althusser writes of the different stages at which students are ejected from the educational system to perform different roles, from the high school drop-outs who function as peasants, to higher education where students function as intellectuals and are trained to become the agents of oppression. I think we, in higher education, are to function as the intellectuals, and as Marxists we are not a threat to the state apparatus.

    While, if we proclaim ourselves as Marxists we're likely to end up on a list or in a government database, we're not going to have our apartments raided by FBI thugs, as some were in Minneapolis and Chicago. (Joshua Clover may be an exception, but he is still writing poetry and giving lectures, not taking up arms). The working class isn't likely going to have their false consciousness shattered because they read dissertations. So, we are not a threat to the system. If we were, we would probably be "ejected" from this intellectual "terrain." The working class isn't likely to access the Digital Commons.

    My partner has a degree in Political Science from the University of Nebraska. In that program, he didn't read a stitch of Marx. I found that to be telling.

    Althusser writes that the ISAs are multiple and distinct. My perception is that academia is quite distinct from other levels of education, those which continue to spit our good, properly ideologically oriented citizens. Note how many of the working class vote Republican based on the Capitalist values of personal responsibility and family values. Equally scary is how the NRA recruits members from the working glass, probably in the hopes that we'll shoot each other so they don't have to.

  3. One issue is that the students are complicit in their own subjectification. The students list "(business-)professional writing" at the top of their writing goals and want to know they'll be able to use what they learn "in the real (corporate) world." In defense of UNL, there was a lot of talk in the "how to teach" class about empowering students a la theories like that of Paulo Freire, who, I think, was influenced by Gramsci. I think you can offer students opportunities for real reflection as well as "professional/business writing" skills by emphasizing rhetorical flexibility in general. But... I don't think we should frame it as a one-sided victimization.


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