Brian Holmes on the Future of the Public School

The destiny of social movements is to change the structure of human relations — so be careful what you ask for! This class aims to look at the cultural roots of the current university crisis, and in that light, to explore the role that experiments like The Public School could play in re-imagining education.

Some deep reference points are provided by the critical work by two UC professors, Christopher Newfield and Robert Samuels. Newfield develops an idealized historical figure of the public university as the cultural vehicle of an expanded, multi-ethnic middle class, and shows how its capacity to elaborate its own measures and values was strengthened by the social activism of the 1960s and 70s, before being eroded by the introduction of entrepreneurial conceptions of creativity and innovation in the 90s. He’s particularly good on identifying dominant business practices and showing how they came to overdetermine cultural values; to go further with that we could look into the work of management guru Peter Drucker on the knowledge economy, as well as Henry Chesbrough’s model of “open innovation.”


Samuels begins with the mediated experience of networked society and examines the ambiguous mix of autonomy and alienation characterizing the individualized, semi-automated environment of games, movies and social media (the expression of what he calls “automodernity”). He critiques a lot of “high theory” and develops his own take on the psychopathology of everyday experience in the digital age; plus he is far more critical of faculty self-interest than Newfield. Samuels is really asking how to create critical social movements under the social and psychic conditions of what I call “the flexible personality.”


Both these guys are active participants in the UC debate, and their arguments go a long way toward revealing what’s at stake, both culturally and economically, in the current transformation of public universities. We could read them from a very specific perspective, asking not only whether they get it right, but what relevance their portrayals of contemporary society and its institutions might have for people trying to invent their own self-managed processes of education. By assessing the state of society’s major institutions of higher learning we could ask which directions should be taken by vanguard experiments seeking a dialectical relation to the mainstream. In this way the class would feed back into the current campus movements while pointing toward further horizons.


Readings (to be completed by other proposals):
—Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, esp. chapters 1-3, 5 and 8.


—Robert Samuels, New Media, Cultural Studies and Critical Theory after Postmodernism: Automodernity from Zizek to Laclau, esp. chaps 1, 5, 6, 8 and 9.