Keeping the “Other” Impoverished and Critically Illiterate: Higher Education’s Business Model and Race


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

November 30, 2015

In the next few installments of the Weekly Read, I will be looking at how a two-tiered education system has been evolving rapidly in the United States since at least the 1980s when neo-liberal (market-based) reforms of higher education—theorized originally by economist Milton Friedman and championed by President Ronald Reagan—were inaugurated. The net effect of applying market-based principles to the funding and organization of higher education has been to produce two distinct systems of higher education in America: one system of elite colleges and universities for primarily affluent white students and a second system, public and grossly underfunded, “serving” America’s impoverished and struggling masses: immigrants, poor whites, and people of color. The elite/public distinction helps guarantee white, privileged access to political and economic power, while relegating everyone else to an increasingly Darwinian existence. By subjecting public higher education (once perceived as a public good) to the privatizing principles of the market, taxpayer dollars flow upwards to enrich shareholders, while leaving the publicly educated student increasingly indebted and impoverished. To the extent that the higher education system (as well as elementary, middle, and high school) gives whites unfair access to better jobs, a better education, homeownership, healthcare, retirement benefits, and wealth generally, while keeping all other groups at a systematic disadvantage, then that system is practicing institutional racism.

A recent essay by Kimya Barden, “Neoliberalism and African American in Higher Education” neatly summarizes how economic models, including the neoliberal “business model,” have historically affected the education of Africans and African Americans. Tracing economic models from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries, Barden looks first at mercantilism, the economic model prevalent during the rise of the Atlantic slave trade in the mid-1600s. African slaves, forcefully removed from West Africa to Britain’s colonies in America, were central to the success of the mercantile trade system that moved raw materials (cotton, tobacco, and sugar) to England, from where manufactured goods were sold back to the colonies. At the height of mercantilism in the mid-1700s, southern colonies passed laws prohibiting “slave education”: writing was criminalized to prevent slaves from exchanging knowledge about abolitionism. Criminalizing African American access to knowledge became the norm in America for the next century. Following mercantilism, economic “liberalism,” the brainchild of Adam Smith, became the dominant economic paradigm, lasting from the 1770s to the 1860s. Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) lays out an economic blueprint stressing the absence of government controls (no tariffs or regulations) to allow unhindered free market growth and international trade. Slavery, free labor, was essential to the success economic liberalism. Needless to say, African-American education continued to be criminalized under free-market liberalism. Barden cites an Alabama slave code from the 1830s: “Any slave who shall write for any other slave, upon conviction, shall receive, on his or her back, one hundred lashes for the first offence, and seven hundred lashes for every offence thereafter.” As a consequence, only 5% of America’s 4.5 million slaves in the 1850s were literate. African-American literacy began to grown significantly after 1865 with the end of the Civil War, manumission, and the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau and HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities) in the 1860s. African-American movement into non-HBCU’s began in the 1930s with the emergence of the next dominant economic paradigm, Keynesian economics, the application of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes to re-start the American economy during the Great Depression: Keynesian economics departs markedly from classical liberalism because it involves activist government policies—taxing, borrowing, spending—to stabilize the economy. Keynesian-inspired polices produced a Golden Age in higher education, one from which African-American benefited enormously: education related laws included the G.I. Bill (1944), the Higher Education Act (1965), and Federal Pell Grants (1972). The great progress African-Americans have made since the 1930s—in terms of access to higher education and to a stable middle class life—has stalled and gone into reverse since America abandoned the progressive policies of the New Deal and fell under the dominion and ideological spell of conservative governance: the neoliberal era. Here is Barden: “The educational gains in the Keynesian era, for both African American collegiates and other college-aspiring Americans such as veterans and working-class families, have been lost in the current era of neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism–the name and the policies are historically regressive, harking back to the eighteenth-century views of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations—advocates and practices free-market principles: limited government and the privatization of public goods and services funded by tax dollars. Neoliberalism’s impact on African Americans has been particularly deleterious: huge tuition spikes, predatory for-profit college practices, and the defunding, merging, or closure of highly favored academic disciplines, such as the humanities, social sciences, and education. Again, here’s Barden: “African Americans appear to be regressing with regard to higher education experiences. Since its rebirth, neoliberalism has had deleterious implications for African American collegiates in particular. When compared to other ethnic groups, African Americans are more likely to enroll in expensive, for-profit schools, amass inordinate amounts of college debt, drop out of college.”

It is no accident that disciplines that stimulate self-exploration and critical inquiry are often the first to fall as neo-liberalism clear-cuts its way through “old growth” disciplines and departments (yes, this “deforestation” kills diversity). Just as mercantilism and and economic liberalism criminalized African-American literacy, neoliberalism erects huge barriers in the form of economic disincentives that block creative, critically imaginative education. So just as slave owners wanted their slaves to accept their white-defined non-human status as natural, God-given, and hence not subject to questioning, so the neo-liberal conservative politicians and CEOs (and other “masters of the universe” like Donald Trump) want African-American students (and others similarly less privileged) to accept their condition as natural to their class. Let’s call it an active fostering of critical illiteracy, the goal of which is to individualize blame (it’s the fault of the individual) while critically blinding folks to the massive movement of wealth into the hands of a very small number of very, very rich Americans. (Did you know that Walton family—yes the Walmart Waltons—supported a charter school where the school uniforms were near replicas of Walmart employee uniforms?).

Kimya Barton’s historic survey of economic paradigms and their impact on African American education reminds me of one last important point: every paradigm is based on ideas, the ideas of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman. And ideas can change. There is nothing natural, inevitable, or historically necessary about neoliberalism. If, as lots of smart observers today claim, conservative thought (and the GOP itself) is in its death throes, we could be nearing the end of a very dark period in economic and political history. And that is good news for all Americans, except maybe those who aren’t the 99%. Ideas can change. Let’s change some minds.

Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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