By David Pan Telos
This week we have released a podcast interview with J. E. Elliott, who discusses his recent article, “Brand English and Its Discontents: Situating Truth and Value in the University Today” in Telos 200. I discuss with him the way in which activism has become the focus in humanities education. He argues that such an activist orientation erodes the educational mission of higher education in a way that does not resist but in fact conforms to the continuing corporatization of the university. In this context of activism as education, I also could not resist commenting on the continuing strike by graduate student instructors at the University of California, in which their demands for a doubling of their salaries are an attempt to introduce a Marxist-inspired paradigm into collective bargaining discussions.
As the teaching assistant strike at the University of California extends into its fifth week, it seems that education has increasingly merged with activism. In fact, J. E. Elliott argues in our podcast interview that the development of the humanities in particular has moved so far in this direction that activism has become the explicit focus and attraction of majoring in the humanities for college students. As he lays out, such activist-oriented education is not a form of resistance but a result of the corporatization of the university, which involves not just links between corporations and universities but also the way in which college education has developed into a mass market commodity. The expansion of higher education, in promoting the admission of larger proportions of the population into college, has diluted the elite character of the college degree, making it into a more purely professional qualification and forcing colleges to devote more effort into justifying the value of their degrees for the job market. Because the ideals of inclusion and of merit are inherently contradictory, integrating more students into college has devalued the degree credential and therefore colleges must design their programs with an eye toward different segments of the higher education market. Consequently, the humanities at U.S. universities have evolved to establish “Brand English” to compete with “Brand STEM” and “Brand Business” by promoting social activism as its main distinguishing characteristic.