Revolution Inc.

First published in the University of Guelph's weekly student newspaper, The Ontarion 134.13 (12 April-2 May 2001): 5. I have corrected one notable error, and have added footnotes, which did not appear in the text as originally published; the third, fourth and fifth of these notes cite sources which I drew upon in writing this piece. My concluding suggestion of a Latin motto for graduating students also did not appear in the article as first published.

Gnothi seauton in the Greek original, Nosce teipsum in Latin translation: “Know thyself.” Even the current arbiters of cool would have us accept this injunction of the Delphic Oracle as a goal of human thought: when in The Matrix Keanu Reeves is taken by Samuel Jackson to meet THE Oracle, he finds a Hollywood-Idiot-Latin version of the saying hung up over her kitchen door.

But when the Roman poet Virgil declared that person to be happy who knows the causes of things—Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas—he was suggesting that knowledge of the self won’t take us very far unless it includes knowledge of the world which contains and conditions that self.

Virgil’s words—Rerum Cognoscere Causas—are actually the motto of this university. They imply a commitment to developing an understanding of what's going on, a commitment, if you like, to truth. (In recent years that motto has been largely displaced by a more banal English tag, “Changing Lives, Improving Life”—which, though pleasantly up-beat, contains no reference to knowledge or truth.)1 But the University of Guelph's original Virgilian motto—adopted, one would suppose, at the time of its founding in the 1960s—was a sign that the institution believed itself not just to be imparting knowledge (skills, theories, or facts), but also fashioning people who, through an understanding of the causes shaping them and the world they inhabited, would be able to participate in a principled, creative re-fashioning and transformation of that world—and perhaps of their own identities as well.

The functions and the self-understanding of universities have themselves been radically transformed since those far-away 1960s, as one result of a socio-political revolution which has swept across the English-speaking world, and which in its further expansion has taken the name of “globalization.” I’m talking about the Corporatist Revolution.

Never heard of it? If so, you’ve just illustrated Lifton’s Law, a paradox formulated in the 1980s by the American psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, according to which there’s an inverse relationship between the actual life-and-death importance of any aspect of contemporary history and the likelihood that it will receive any attention in our university curricula.2

But even if we’re too ill-informed or too diffident to have taken note of the fact, the Corporatist Revolution has happened. In the U.K., starting in 1979, it took the form (as Christopher Hitchens says) of “sado-monetarism”: Mrs Thatcher, the Iron Lady, set out to handbag the welfare state and make social democracy a distant memory. She succeeded.

The “Reagan Revolution” began in 1980 in the U.S. Despite all the talk about debt reduction, Reagan’s strategy (as his first budget director indiscreetly revealed in 1981), was to rack up deficits so huge that no future government would be able to undo Reaganite cuts to social spending. The idea was, effectively, to bankrupt any future other than the one intended by Reagan and his handlers.3

Having elected Brian Mulroney to power in 1984, Canadians found themselves being overhauled for entry into the Reaganite world of deregulated capitalism: with the FTA and then NAFTA we abandoned all but the flimsiest pretence of national control over natural resources, economic policy, and Canadian culture. In 1993, we threw out Mulroney’s heirs—only to put ourselves into the hands of Jean Chrétien, a more fervent admirer of Reagan and his works than even Mulroney had been. At that point we began to learn what it means in this era to be “open for business.”

(You don’t like massive cuts to medicare, the elimination of transfer payments in support of higher education, or the prospect of finishing your university degree tens of thousands of dollars in debt? Sorry, folks: that’s part of the package.)

But Canada had to wait until 1995, and the Ontario electorate’s approval of the “Common Sense Revolution,” to hear from a true philosopher of the new order. The moment came when John Snobelen, Mike Harris’s grade-eleven-drop-out minister of education, decided to strut his stuff in front of a gathering of ministry bureaucrats—and was vain enough to have his vapourings captured on videotape.

In good Reaganite fashion, Snobelen explained the need to “bankrupt the actions and activities that aren’t consistent with the future we’re committed to.” The initial phase of this process would involve “creating a useful crisis.” “Yeah,” he said, “we need to invent a crisis. And that’s not an act just of courage—there’s some skill involved.”4

Skilfully or not, the Harris government has applied this philosophy of invented crises and selective bankrupting to Ontario’s universities. Institutions that were already crumbling due to many years of underfunding and the recession-years cuts of the early 1990s were hit after 1995 with a massive withdrawal of funding. A fraction of the money that was withdrawn is now being restored in the form of capital spending programs, but these are targeted to areas like information technology, engineering, and the health sciences. (The pure sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences are evidently in line for the bankrupting prescribed by Dr. Snobelen.) Morever, the restored money is being made available only in cases where matching funding can be raised from outside sources, thus ensuring corporate control of a remodeled higher education infrastructure. As finance minister Ernie Eves put it, “The private sector … believes it’s best to have some input on the ground floor of the postsecondary education system.”5

The Harris government is well aware that Ontario’s deliberately weakened universities are now facing a demographic double-whammy. In 2003, thanks to the elimination of Grade 13, the annual cohort of applicants to Ontario universities will be doubled in size. And in the two following years, due to what demographers term “the baby-boom echo,” the annual cohorts will increase by about fifteen per cent.

The government’s response? Thousands of positions for “university” students are being prepared at Ontario’s community colleges, and legislation has been passed to allow private degree-granting institutions to establish themselves in Ontario. “Digital diploma mills,” as historian David Noble calls them, already exist in the U.S. These low-overhead distance-education operations employ ill-paid faculty on revolving-door contracts to provide large numbers of students with job-market training in a manner that maximizes the institution’s profits.6

Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? But they must be needed here, since our publicly-funded universities just can’t seem to do the job. And once they’ve set up shop in Ontario, the diploma mills will most likely be eligible for public funding on the same basis as public universities. (Check the fine print of NAFTA.)

But what can we say about the corporatist form into which our existing universities have morphed during the past two decades?

First and most obviously, the corporate university is controlled by corporate interests, rather than by representatives of any larger public interest. I’m not thinking so much about who controls the Board of Governors, though that’s important enough, as about the fact that the research agendas of many academic units are under direct corporate control—with obvious implications for the orientation of their teaching.

I’ve pointed to the Ontario government’s decision to let corporate interests in “on the ground floor.” The same attitude is evident in the Chrétien federal government. After withdrawing money from the three Councils responsible for the public funding of research in medicine, the natural sciences and engineering, and the humanities and social sciences, the government poured resources into a new Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which provides funding only to researchers who can organize “matching funds” from private sources.

Guess how much corporate funding is available to researchers who want to do work critical of genetically modified foods. Guess what happens to the academic careers of scientists who can’t secure research funding.

In other respects as well, the corporate university will be responsive to the selfish desires of a social elite rather to the larger interests of society as a whole. Why should this come as a surprise? According to the Toronto Star’s headline story of March 16, 2001, three per cent of Ontario’s families control 27 per cent of the total wealth; and the richest twenty per cent of Canadians saw their wealth increase by 39 per cent from 1984 to 1999, while the poorest forty per cent made no advance or became poorer.7 Wouldn’t it be more surprising if a social elite that has bent the tax regime so far to its advantage were to neglect twisting the higher education system in the same direction?8

High tuition fees? That might be a matter for concern if we thought the institution retained any function of ensuring social mobility. The children of the rich can manage high tuition fees. Don’t worry about the others: if student loan debt has risen by six hundred per cent since 1984,9 won’t those who carry it be all the more likely to behave like good selfish free-market individualists when they graduate with thirty or forty thousand dollars of debt, and with a hot charge of resentment against the society that laid this on them?

As for the notion that a university might exist to provide our society as a whole with a variety of institutionalized forms of critical self-understanding—I’m sorry, that one’s going a bit blurry on me. Rerum Cognoscere Causas: is that some kind of a tip on what to do with my ten-cent NASDAQ stocks, or what?

Perhaps we need a Latin motto for graduating students, and not just for the universities that (thanks to the invented crises of Snobelen & Co.) have become dependent on ever more burdensome tuition fees.

Here's one for a start: Sperare Videor Aes Alienum Exsolvere. It means: “I flatter myself with the hope of paying my debts.”




1  There was an odd factual error in my text as first published: I identified Rerum Cognoscere Causas as “the motto of the university where I did my graduate studies in the late 1970s.” A strange mistake, given that by 2001, when this piece was written, I had taught for more than a decade at the University of Guelph. The motto of the University of Sussex, where I did my doctoral studies, is actually “Be still and know,” which is lifted from Psalm 46. I can guess why I might have forgotten that fact. During my time at Sussex, the university's motto may have seemed a faint exhortation addressed to recalcitrant students whose learning processes involved activist praxis as well as quiet reading: for at least two years the undergraduate student union was led by members of the Situationist International, who in support of what they understood as just causes and a project of understanding the causes of things recurrently occupied the central administrative building, Sussex House. I've altered this paragraph to correct the error.

2  See Gillian Thomas, “Lifton's Law and the Teaching of Literature,” in Literature and Politics/Literary Politics, ed. Michael Keefer, special double issue of Dalhousie Review 66.1-2 (1986): 14-21.

3  See Budget Director David Stockman's interview with William Greider in the Atlantic Monthly (November 1981).

4  See Richard Brennan, “Minister plotted ‘to invent a crisis’,” Toronto Star (13 September 1995): A3; Lisa Wright, “Apologize for remarks Harris tells Snobelen,” Toronto Star (14 September 1995): A3; Thomas Walkom, “Snobelen scales windy heights of bafflegab,” Toronto Star (14 September 1995): A25; and “Harris Mainly Mum on Plans for Post-Secondary Education in Ontario,” CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin (November 1995): 6.

5  Quoted by John Ibbitson, “Universities and colleges get big boost from Ontario,” Globe and Mail (23 February 2000): A1, A7.

6  See David Noble, “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education,” Toronto: distributed by OCUFA, October 1997; and “Digital Diploma Mills, Part II: The Coming Battle Over Online Instruction,” Toronto: distributed by OCUFA, March 1998. For some historical context, see Janice Newson and Howard Buchbinder, The University Means Business (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1988); and Neil Tudiver, Universities for Sale: Resisting Corporate Control over Canadian Higher Education (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999). Parallel developments in the U.S. have been analyzed by Sheila Slaughter and Larry L. Leslie, Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

7  Elaine Carey, “Rich, poor are even wider apart,” Toronto Star (16 March 2001): A1, A10. Carey observed that in Ontario, the richest 3.1 percent of Ontario families control 27 percent of the province's wealth, while in Alberta and B.C. a similar proportion—3.2 and 3.3 percent respectively—control 36 percent of the wealth in those provinces.

8  Relevant data from the U.S. is provided by Hendrick Hertzberg, “Generous George,” The New Yorker (12 March 2001). “The Administration has dismissed, but has not been able to refute, independent analyses showing that forty per cent of the benefits of the Bush tax cut will accrue to the richest one per cent of taxpayers; that the bottom eighty per cent will get less than a third of the benefits and the bottom twenty per cent less than one per cent; that all the benefits of the proposed abolition of the estate tax will go to the heirs of the richest two per cent; and that the richest six per cent of that two per cent will rake in half the estate-tax pot. The shape of the Bush tax program represents a seismic shift in the overall tax burden toward the bottom of the economic scale. And its size represents a massive diversion of actual and potential resources away from public activities that benefit the whole of society—activities like education, public health, and environmental protection, the very ones Bush endorsed at the outset of his speech—and toward the single purpose of augmenting the net incomes of the comfortable” (pp. 41-42). From 1992 to 1998, moreover, “the average after-tax income of the richest one percent rose from about four hundred thousand dollars to just under six hundred thousand, and from 12.2 per cent of the national net income to 15.7 per cent. (Disparities of wealth, as opposed to income, are, of course, much higher.) Really, now—how urgently do these good people require a new subsidy from the other ninety-nine per cent?” (p. 42). The richest one percent versus the remaining 99 percent: this opposition would resurface a decade later in the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

9  Carey, “Rich, poor are even wider apart.” In remarking that Canadian student loan debt was six times as high by 1999 as it had been in 1984, Carey highlighted the story of a Ryerson student who, despite having worked twenty hours per week as a waiter in a campus bar, was going to graduate in 2001 with a debt of $40,000 in student loans.