Knowledge, Power, and the Politics of Life

I think we can all agree that higher education is a major social structure of civil society. I would like to think that it follows that it is also an important space for civil discourse. That said, what components are necessary to encourage dialogue rather than silence dissent? The anti-intellectual trend that is deeply embedded in U.S. culture marginalizes and silences academics in society and also silences less moderate academics on our campuses. I am a firm believer in the idea that including all voices in the mix creates stronger and more creative and innovative solutions to the problems we face. However, true inclusion requires respect and compromise—two practices that are sorely missing on campuses and in contemporary society.

Denying the political dimensions of higher education is impossible, on both a practical and theoretical level. Life is political. Life is a series of power struggles and imbalances. Education does not occur outside of life, and higher education does not exist in a vacuum. Knowledge and power are intimately linked, and if institutions of higher education are also centers of knowledge, they are also centers of power. If academic inquiry is focused on knowledge, it is at the center of power struggles and true politics—not just party politics or policy debates but struggles for power. Who we educate and how we educate them affects who has knowledge and who gets to define knowledge.

What is the message when institutions state that there is no place for politics on our campuses? We are not implying that our institutions have found a way to exist outside of politics. Instead, we are saying that only a certain type of politics is acceptable. What do those politics look like, and where will they take academic institutions? Will a narrow definition of politics foster creativity, innovation, new ideas, and new solutions?

Contingent faculty members are at the center of the supposed elimination of politics from our institutions. The struggles of contingent faculty on our campuses are not just about salary and benefits (although these are incredibly important, and I’m not denying that). When contingent faculty members change what they teach and how they teach because they feel that their job security is threatened, as a society, we are losing.

The fact that more than 70 percent of our courses are taught by contingent faculty means that most of our courses and students are being taught by disempowered teachers. Therefore, students are less likely to be taught to resist, to talk back, and to try to make change happen. Contingent faculty members who refuse to back down are taking big risks, particularly in today’s environment, where the “student as customer” paradigm dominates so many administrator-faculty conversations. Even when administrators support these instructors, they often stand alone in their support and are likely to alienate themselves in defending these faculty members. As our teachers increasingly enter more contingent and precarious work situations, this phenomenon is on the rise.

Who loses? Our teachers, our students, and ultimately, society. Most people fear change—not just conservatives, but also liberals. But what we need now are folks who are willing to take risks, willing to fight for change, willing to create a vision for tomorrow. When we do not support and protect these folks, we stagnate. Innovative thinkers and teachers, like writers and artists, move us forward. When our institutions become hostile toward innovative thinking and new ideas, they—and the people who produce them—don’t disappear. They go elsewhere. The best thoughts are not happening on our campuses, they are happening elsewhere.

Where has innovative thinking gone? Where do you find innovation?


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