Education in the Lean University

— Robert Hollinger

Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean State
by Alan Sears
Garamond Press (Aurora, Ontario, Canada), 2003, 283 pages, $26.95 paper

IN RETOOLING THE Mind Factory, Alan Sears employs a Marxist analysis to explain developments in education — especially the corporate university — as a manifestation of the neoliberal agenda. As he puts it:

“Educational reform does have a logic ... I will analyze this logic through the lens of the Marxist approach to the state, labor processes and culture. Specifically, I will relate education reform to a broad-ranging strategy that aims to recast the relations of citizenship in light of the process of capitalist restructuring that has been underway since the 1970s. This broad-ranging strategy is often referred to as ‘neo-liberalism,’ indicating a renewed approach to the ‘free market’ strategies of the 19th century associated with classical liberalism.” (2)

In short, “The mind factory is being retooled to bring it more in line with state of the art production systems that have been developed in other fields of work.” (3)

This lively and clear book provides the most systematic and enlightening analysis of the rise of the corporate school system, from kindergarten through grad school and beyond, that has appeared to date.

There have been few serious studies of the corporate university, its cultural, economic and political roots and implications, and the role it plays in Empire. Relatively few authors have written significant books on the topic, although they are imbued with various and even conflicting approaches, ideologies, analyses and assessments: Cary Nelson, Bill Readings, Stanley Aronowitz, Henry Giroux, Lyotard, Derrida and — from a very different angle — Alasdair MacIntyre.

Alan Sears needs to be added to this short list of writers. Retooling The Mind Factory is an enlightening and provocative book, clearly written and defended, lucid and I think more accessible than most of the books by the writers just mentioned.

Sears’ work is particularly interesting for its use of events in Ontario to illustrate the very real issues that we all must face and, hopefully, deal with politically and individually.

Problematic Alternatives

Instead of educating students for citizenship — a notion that we on the Left need to talk more about — the corporate system educates students to be good consumers and corporate team players: cooperative and obedient. (In my view, this is one of the most worrisome and dangerous things about many “learning communities”. Computer education, which instills no sense of judgment, only adds to the problem.)

The most eye-opening part of Sears’ argument, which interprets the ongoing development of corporate educational ideology and practices from kindergarten to graduate school and beyond, shows how the usual alternatives to the corporate ideal — whether liberal education or postmodernist and deconstructive analyses — are also very problematic.

Indeed, liberal ideals of education — education for citizenship in the corporate state — are not all that different, either in theory or educational practice, from the corporate educational system.

Further, Sears gives the lie to the notion that the corporate university is good for democracy, will promote greater racial, gender and class equality and opportunity, and promote the well being and success (in economic terms, of course!) of students and societies.

Employing Marxist categories, Sears is able to critique this entire ideology in a clear, convincing and systemic fashion, while also enriching our understanding of these developments by putting them into a wider cultural, political and historical context, and exploring the wider ramifications of corporate education.

It is interesting to note that a recent editorial in Business Week, of all places, was titled Should Public Universities Behave Like Private Colleges? They’re Hiking tuition and becoming more elitist — ducking a key social role (Commentary by William C. Symonds, Business Week, Nov. 15, 2004: 57, 100).

Flagship state universities, the University of Wisconsin, Michigan and so on, now have 70% of their undergraduate students who come from families with incomes of $100,000/yr and up, and are also getting more funds from private sources, effectively loosening their connections and obligations to the citizens of the state they are in existence to serve.

I think Sears’ analysis can provide an insightful explanation of these and other trends. But this leads me to my main complaint about the book, namely the last chapter, Learning Freedom. In this chapter, Sears leans more heavily on Freire and Brecht than I would.

Both of these important writers and their followers, such as Giroux, have taught us much about “the pedagogy of the oppressed.” Brecht’s Five Ways of Writing the Truth [the Appendix to Charles Laughton’s edition of Galileo] is insightful and provocative.

But I’m not convinced that the strategies and tactics that they may suggest, even when combined with those of social movements, is going to be enough.

What more is needed? I wish I knew. This is one issue that Marxists and other politically progressive and concerned people need to address as we continue to grapple with the emerging Empire of global capitalism. But Sears has provided one important, indeed, necessary document to stimulate our thoughts, our dialogues, and our collective and individual actions. For this we are all in his debt.

ATC 116, May–June 2005