Collapse and renewal of the knowledge society

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Is the university in ruins, as Bill Readings said ten years ago? Or is it in chains, as Giroux says today? These are two basic books for understanding the contemporary university. They explore the history, philosophy, economics and politics of what used to be called “higher education” — before the process of becoming a knowledgeable member of society turned into yet another vector of the flexibilization, corporatization and militarization that is currently plaguing the United States.

One thing is certain: if there is to be any fundamental transformation of the so-called “knowledge societies” and of the people who inhabit them, it will have to come at least in part from the laboratories, libraries, studios and public debates of the institutions of knowledge production. Never in the past did these institutions play such a central role in shaping society, through streams of innovation that are almost immediately turned into technologies, organizational forms, landscapes of belief and behavior. And never before did universities have such a great responsibility to innovate for the better, in a world that is now faced with major crises. In the United States in particular we are at a crossroads:

We have a president elected by fraud in 2000, then reelected by the popular vote after having invaded a country on the basis of deliberate misinformation.

We have an economy that has lurched from one financial crisis (the dot-com bust) to another even deeper one (the subprime loan disaster), to the point where the stability of the currency itself is in doubt, as Asian states and private investors consider whether to withdraw the support that has propped up American spending habits for so long.

We have a public sphere where intelligence and diversity have been stifled by unprecedented media concentration, repressive new laws and surveillance techniques, and galloping privatization which increasingly subjects the freedom of expression and of reseearch to the control of administrators concerned only with competitiveness and profit.

The Project for a New American University has been founded out of a sense of responsibility and urgency. The United States has undergone staggering changes over the last thirty years. The military has ballooned out of control, super-privileged elites have sought further advantages by every available means while the middle classes crumble into a world of temps jobs and uncertain health and retirement conditions, yet are still invited to consider themsleves lucky with regard to the growing ranks of the poor and the the excluded. The ecological bill, deferred, exported and restructured like the national debt, has now come up for payment, which cannot be effected by simply printing more dollars or issuing more Treasury bonds. The US needs a process of sweeping change and renewal, which can only begin with a serious assessment of the social forms elaborated over the last 30 years, since the last great political-economic crisis in the 1970s. Who can perform such an assessment and subject it to public debate? Who can imagine a way out of the desperate situation into which the country has fallen – and who can move from imagination to reality?

The neoconservatives launched their Project for a New American Century in the 1990s. We can clearly see what disastrous effects it has had since then. Their project was based on a marshaling of elite visions, whose gaping blind-spots have proven to be mutually reinforcing. What we need to the contrary is a bottom-up process of frank investigation and open debate, to overcome the multiple crises that oligarchical leadership has unleashed on society. The Project for a New American University is not an interest group, a lobby, an old-boys club or a conspiracy. It is not a spoof or a hoax or another exercise in fruitless irony. It is an ethical principle applied to the institutions of learning and of knowledge production, and to their use value not only for a nation, but for a world society beyond all borders.

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