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Bad knowledge and the promise of the university (response to Immanuel Wallerstein)

In a recent blog-post sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein writes, “the universities were supposed to play the role of one major locus … of analysis of the realities of our world-system. It is such analyses that may make possible the successful navigation of the chaotic transition towards a new, and hopefully better, world order.”[i]

Wallerstein has developed a world systems model of modernization and empire aimed at creating this better world. It is understandable that he mourns the docile, flaccid, opportunistic, and sometimes destructive contributions of the university as increasing social inequality, militarism, various forms of corruption, debt, unemployment, biophysical forces and natural resource scarcities are decimating human societies.

Nonetheless, the historical precedent for such leadership from universities is to my knowledge non-existent. This idealized expectation persists, I think, because the intellectual life is in most instances supported by the physical labor of others and therefore functions as a privileged role carrying high ethical expectations to contribute to the utilitarian welfare of society and cultural progress.

Contemporary universities are –with precious few exceptions- a reflection of the larger corporate, foundation, and military/governmental web of relationships that control knowledge production and dissemination. Rather than speaking truth to power universities prostrate and prostitute themselves to serve power for meretricious doles of wealth and status. As one cynical “policy analyst” who got caught in a conflict-of-interest puts it,

Many supposedly “objective” thinkers and “independent” scholar/experts these days have blogs or consulting gigs, or they are starting nonprofit Centers for the Study of . . . Who funds their books, speeches or other endeavors? Often it’s those with an interest in the outcome of a related debate. The number of folks underwriting the pursuit of pure knowledge can be counted on one hand, if not one finger.[ii]

Thomas Frank offers a brief sociology of “knowledge production” at universities:

Even the traditional academy, where free inquiry nominally lives, has become a profit center, a place where exorbitant tuition somehow bypasses the adjuncts who do the teaching but makes for lavish executive salaries; where economists pull in fantastic sums for “consulting”; and where the prospect of launching the next hot Internet startup is a gamble that it is worth bending any rule to take.[iii]

As Frank implies, the light flickers in a few faculty members such as Wallerstein at almost every university –in my estimation real intellectuals- who resist seduction and are not reluctant to let their research and scholarship critique the status quo. But most are labeled contrarian, obstructionist, fool or some epithet that marginalizes them from “serious” participation in the knowledge creation/diffusion policy process.

Importantly, they support themselves on faculty salaries, not the largess of those able to purchase their intellectual and legitimizing services.

I believe that it is sociologically impossible for American universities –but not selected intellectuals within them[iv]- to create alternative bodies of knowledge that will help create the sustainable world Wallerstein hopes will emerge from unfolding social breakdown and decadence.

Let’s pretend do a thought experiment: modern university presidents call a press conference to acknowledge that the world has reached the limits to growth; is in ecological overshoot, and that hitting these limits and overshoot are directly connected to economic contraction and massive debt that can never be repaid; that governments are captured by industry –such as finance, health, energy, military contractors- and not at all serious about unemployment, poverty, health care, climate change and sundry other issues of sustainability. The reaction of the corporate-foundation-governmental nexus that supports universities would be to withdraw their support. In short, universities are citadels of what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls “institutional thinking (similarly Michel Foucault refers to the regime of truth of the dominant episteme, and Thomas Kuhn to the thought ways of the dominant paradigm).

Meanwhile, this moment of history cries out for innovative thinking and a new cultural mythology.

In critical respects, then, the modern university is producing what I call “Bad Knowledge” of increasing harm to the predicaments facing us. Why? As Kuhn notes, dominant paradigms go into crisis because they can no longer satisfactorily address a crisis level accumulation of problems –their solutions don’t work and often create further problems.

The president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, in 2010 uttered a revealing sample of Bad Knowledge:

Prevailing discourse, familiar since at least the 1990s, [stress added] emphasizes the university's place as a paramount player in a global system increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas…Knowledge is replacing other resources as the main driver of economic growth, [stress added] and education has increasingly become the foundation for individual prosperity and social mobility.[v]

This is not hegemony; it is a recipe for incoherence and irrelevance. It betrays a profound mismatch between a rapidly changing world and leadership mired in anachronistic slogans and incantations -note that Faust refers to “prevailing discourse” from the early 1990s as her anchor. She does not grasp that economic growth is wholly dependent upon what she dismisses as “other resources.” Indeed, the model of globalization she takes for granted is being destroyed by peak oil.

From a thermodynamic/ecological point of view her remarks are illiterate, especially since they were made five years after worldwide oil production had peaked, various ecological and resource crises abound, the nation was -in 2010- in the third year of a socioeconomic and financial crisis, paper wealth was and continues to be cannibalized and destroyed, and real economic growth gives every appearance of having ceased. Further, her claim about education as the path to social mobility is foundering on the shoals of the student loan debt bubble and a stream of university graduates unable to find the work for which they went into debt to secure higher education.

Bad Knowledge is found in economic departments and professional schools that continue to teach economic theory, strategic management, long range planning, economic development, and public policy analysis as if the world economy will perpetually expand. For instance, Larry Summers and other faculty in finance and economics at Harvard and other prestigious universities claimed that financial derivatives were “innovations” that virtually eliminated risk and guaranteed perpetual wealth creation. Summers played a direct role in government deregulation with the argument that markets were self-regulating and able to police themselves. Such thinking is inconceivable within a paradigm whose core metaphor is a finite world with finite resources.

To put all this in business school speak, if Mother Nature were a hedge fund she would be shorting universities and the unsustainable status quo they serve.

This is how I believe epochal change occurs: with universities clinging to the past as chaotic processes play out. However, I expect to see manifestations of resistance to the dominant neoliberal narrative accompanied by the construction of new forms of knowledge and institutions coming from isolated places in the universities and also from independent intellectuals in the so-called hinterlands. Expect to see universities in greater and greater turmoil as the contradictions of attempting to solve problems within received institutional thinking (the dominant episteme, the dominant paradigm) multiply. This will push reluctant faculty to perceive the world more realistically and speak up as they realize that their salad days are over (it’s really that vulgar).

Let me sum up by claiming that those running our institutions of higher learning –and all our institution- have massive power and Bad Knowledge, while those with new liberating knowledge have little or no institutional power but efficacious knowledge. Critically, this is not a static situation, nor a tenable one for a society.

Eventually Bad Knowledge destroys institutional leaders’ legitimacy with the people they purport to serve. We are seeing governments and corporations expending great effort to preserve the moribund order with the techniques of dying empires: massive propaganda, police repression, debt slavery, invasions of privacy and denial of constitutional rights -all to preserve centralized social control and current distributions of wealth, status and power. These corrosive tactics expose systemic contradictions that cannot be repaired yet will be synthesized with the emergence of new forms of social organization. Most importantly, these efforts at social control increasingly will require what I hope are impossible amounts of energy and other natural resources to sustain.

Finally, look for resistance and alternative manifestations of collective power to multiply. For a current example from the universities, consider the description of conferences like this dis./Conference recently sponsored by Occupy Harvard:[vi]

Debt, labor, commodification, ownership, and consumerism structure and characterize contemporary life and academia. From the monetization and protection of intellectual property to the debts that students accrue, from the exploitation of adjunct labor to the re-productions of class lines, this dis/Conference seeks critical engagement with what has currency and what serves as currency in education and life today.

In contrast to traditional conference formats, this dis/Conference seeks to facilitate open, horizontal education through substantive knowledge sharing, inquiry, critique, and discussion… we will engage the economies of academia by subverting its dominant forms of knowledge production. In the process, we will participate in the purposeful creation of an alternative model for scholarly engagement...Everyone – inside or outside of academia – is welcome.

[i]Commentary No. 324, "Higher Education Under Attack". Mar. 1, 2012.

[ii] Bandow, Doug. “The lesson Jack Abramoff taught me.” Los Angeles
January 4, 2006.

[iii] Frank, Thomas. “Too smart to fail.” The Baffler, March 18,

[iv] See Gus Speth’s “American the Possible: A Manifesto, Part I,” in Orion Magazine March/April, 2010.

[v]Faust, Drew. “The role of the university in a changing world.” 
Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin. June 30, 2010.

[vi] Occupy Harvard. Currencies dis/Conference.  March 23, 2012. Northwest Labs Basement.

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