IN AN AGE OF intellectual and spiritual debasement, thinking is vilified as an act of subversion and ignorance translates into a political and cultural virtue. Traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believes that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughingstock of the world.1 Politicians endlessly lie knowing that the public is addicted to exhortation, emotional outbursts, and sensationalism, all of which mimics celebrity culture. Image selling now entails lying on principle, making it all the easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology, and a unique brand of criminality. Paul Krugman claims that not only is the presumptive head of the Republican Party ignorant, but such ignorance is the defining feature of most of the members of the party. He writes:
Truly, Donald Trump knows nothing. He is more ignorant about policy than you can possibly imagine, even when you take into account the fact that he is more ignorant than you can possibly imagine. But his ignorance isn’t as unique as it may seem: In many ways, he’s just doing a clumsy job of channeling nonsense widely popular in his party, and to some extent in the chattering classes more generally.
Ignorance breeds corruption and endears us to falsehoods, venality, and carnival barking. The corruption of both the truth and politics is made all the easier since the American public have become habituated to overstimulation and live in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has time to crystallize into mature and informed thought. As Leon Wieseltier points out, “words cannot wait for thoughts and patience [becomes] a liability.” Opinion outdoes reasoned—and evidence-based arguments and the power of expression degenerates into a spectacle. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence. Universities have become McDonalized and knowledge is now subject to the practice of a fast education and the resulting curricula that resemble a fast-food menu.
Unsurprisingly, education in the larger culture has become a disimagination machine, a tool for legitimating ignorance, and it is central to the formation of an authoritarian politics that is gutting any vestige of democracy from the ideology, policies, and institutions that now shape American society. Education has lost its moral, political, and spiritual bearings just as teachers across the country are being belittled and institutions of higher education are under attack by economic and religious fundamentalists. One consequence is that higher education has become corporatized and is also reduced to a disimagination machine, which confuses training with education, employs a top-down authoritarian style of power, mimics a business culture, infantilizes students by treating them as consumers, and depoliticizes faculty by removing them from all forms of governance. Clearly all of these defining relations produced by the neoliberal university have to be challenged and changed.
The slow death of public and higher education does not augur well for democracy. Americans live in a historical moment that annihilates thought. Ignorance now provides a sense of community; the brain has migrated to the dark pit of the spectacle; the only discourse that matters is about business; poverty is now viewed as a technical problem or a matter of character and personal lifestyle; thought chases after an emotion that can obliterate it.
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Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 4: 46-49