American Academia as Global Imperialism

Originally Written for 500 Years of Globalization at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Yasser Munif

The American academic institution has hardly been one to avoid critique in recent years, and yet, most critiques that are offered remain localized—they ignore the greater globalized impact of our own faults, of which there are many. This could be an oversight; simply a mistake that arises because we have so much to talk about within our borders, and thus can’t spare the capacity to question further. However, I think we’re not quite that simplistic. I believe these faults are a more purposeful attempt to maintain our own power dynamics at both a national and international level. And so, I raise the question: how has the institution of American academia been constructed to reproduce global imperialism? 

To begin answering this question, we must, in fact, look within our borders. Contextually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we must understand that 19.9 million students attended college in the fall of 2019. Of those, 56.8% were female, 43% were male—no distinction for third or non-binary genders were made. The race and ethnicity breakdown was fairly similar to that of the US population as a whole, students entering during the fall of 2019 were: 52.7% White, 18% Hispanic, 13% Black, 6.5% Asian/Pacific Islander, 9.5% were of two or more races, American Indian/Alaskan Native, or a non-resident alien (not identified by race/ethnicity) (The NCES). 

From a financial perspective, the cost of public college has more than doubled since 1963 (adjusted for inflation), and the cost of private college has almost tripled since the same year (Matthews, compiling statistics sourced from the Department of Education). Partially explaining this is the fact that the government has cut a huge portion of its funding towards public colleges, and they’ve had to sharply increase tuition as a result (Matthews). It’s also important to note that students receive need-based aid in direct proportion to what their parents make and are “expected” to contribute, regardless of whether parents are actually contributing (unless the student is over the age of 25 or is married) (How Aid is Calculated). Students can also receive merit-based aid, but these are often given to students who already have the most financial freedom to spend on extracurriculars, tutors, or extra studying, to become worthy of those merit scholarships. And so, students who need the aid more but aren’t able to meet those merit requirements are excluded and unable to attend college. 

Away from the financial issues, we should look at gender dynamics within our academic institutions. 58% of women in academia report experiencing sexual harassment (MeTooSTEM); and of women who have been sexually assaulted, 37.4% had that experience between the ages of 18-24, when most women are in college (Nelson 2014). Even outside of sexual assault, women have reported facing discrimination throughout all portions of their career in academia (Gonzales 2019). Women also participate less in-class than men (Muslimah 2018) (likely because women are socialized to be less assertive [Bossuyt 2018], and fear reprimand in the form of those sexual assault statistics), but are more likely to offset a difficult class with extra work than men (Stanley et al. 2016). And, women are often disadvantaged based on what they learn within school: the literature (and artistic, and scientific, and etc) cannon is predominantly male, we often leave out key parts of female reproductive health (or don’t teach it at all), and most institutions’ faculty is male. 

And finally, we should look at race and ethnicity. Recent data found that school segregation has gotten worse (Chang), and that Black students will experience discipline and suspension at massively higher rates than their White counterparts and that Black students are more likely to be arrested while at school, both of which aren’t accounted for by actually worse behavior (Nelson 2015 “Hidden Racism”). Alexander (2012) has discussed how this creates a school-to-prison pipeline, that drastically reduces the number of Black people (men in particular) who are able to do well in life, in every aspect of their lives from voting to being admitted to colleges. There’s also been a long history of using the educational institution to naturalize and colonize Native Americans: from forcing children into boarding schools to teach them the “American Way,”  to the writing of history books to make their departure from land seem voluntary (Woolford 2015).  

In all of these examples of discrimination, we see how academia has become a gatekeeper to suppress people who supposedly have equal rights under the law. By redefining rules, the most prestigious schools which have the most influence are able to maintain their White, wealthy, male demographic. While all of the examples above, from the school-to-prison pipeline to the high rates of sexual assault are a little more subtle and easy to write off as “not the school’s fault,” there are also many instances that directly benefit the people who have always had power. This can include things like adding admission boosts to legacy students (students whose family members attended the same school).

All of this, of course, is not a look at American academia’s impact on globalization. However, I believe it’s important to consider how we the institution treats its own citizens and students, in order to better contextualize it’s imperialistic mission. Through this data and history, we can see a purposeful discrimination against poor students, women, and racial minorities, thus following the tradition of Eurocentric male domination. As Foucault explains (and Lindio-MicGovern references) in his power-knowledge theory, power and knowledge are intrinsically connected, and one builds on the other. European men have always had the power, so they’ve been able to decide what knowledge we understand to be true, and have created the entire academic institution around it. And so, as we move out of our national borders, we can understand this national context to be replicated on a global scale. The American academic institution has become so important and foundational to the global education system that it has become a new method of imperialism (in which a dominant group [the imperialist] takes control of another group, forcing that “subordinate” group to take on the dominant groups culture and become part of the dominant groups empire [Pieterse 2020]). 

There are a couple ways in particular that American academia has become an imperial force: through reliance on this power-knowledge dynamic, neoliberalism, and homogenization.

As I’ve mentioned above, the theory of power-knowledge is intrinsic to the concept of academia as an imperialist institution. And though it starts in American borders, this is only more powerful as we go international. As Lindio-McGovern explains: “the Western-dominated, Eurocentric mainstream discourse on globalization is a reflection of the prevailing dominant power structure, both in knowledge production and in the globalization process itself” (334). Academia dictates everything in international academia, from the language in which “serious” academics exist in, to the structure of peer-reviewed journals, to the percentage of international students who attend college in an english-speaking and dominant country. Power-knowledge has always existed, but its position in formal education has only cemented as formal education has grown stronger in importance, and as other forms of legal discrimination and imperialism have diminished. 

Neoliberalism has changed almost every industry in the world, so we would be naive to believe education would be excluded. Neoliberalism is the political stance that favors free-market capitalism. In the case of this paper, we analyze neoliberal policy with Niaomi Klein’s three pillars of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, de-regulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, which is all paid for with cuts to public spending and public good (Klein 2014). 

Education has become privatized in a two-fold way. First, many of the most prestigious colleges in the world are, in fact, private institutions, which (as we’ve found) cost more on average, exist as a meritocracy that benefits wealthy students at a higher rate than poor students, and are the most influential proponents of the power-knowledge dynamic. Second, and less obvious, I would argue that education itself has become privatized at higher rates than ever before, even in our current age of information. More and more, even a bachelor’s degree is insufficient to stand out among the crowd of hungry job applicants. Students are forced to take on even more debt to attend graduate school and become more ingrained in this institution of knowledge creation, and the data shows this trend (Nelson 2015 “Today’s College Freshmen”). Even though we have access to more information at our fingertips, and could easily be equally educated on our own effort, we rely on the privatized entity of the academic institution to certify us and deem our knowledge good enough. 

And, of course, American (or English-speaking) degree programs hold the most power, and get you the most leverage in the job market. There’s a reason why UCLA is the most applied to school in the world, why the Ivy League is known world-wide, and why the only other “household name” colleges like Oxford and Cambridge are in England. We began our domination there, we have privatized our access to knowledge there, and we reproduce imperialism there. Some examples of this knowledge-power domination include president Donald Trump, who attended University of Pennsylvania; former president Barack Obama, who attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School (in fact, 16 American presidents have attended Ivy League schools); and Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, attended Oxford University. Even dropouts from prestigious colleges often become successful enough to enact massive influence over the world (see: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who both dropped out of Harvard). 

Neoliberalism is also seen in American education when we look at the pillars of de-regulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes. There have been numerous battles over rights and wages for academics, but overall there are a few trends we see that show these portions of neoliberalism: a downward trend in the number of job-secure  full-time or tenured professors; only an 8% salary raise over a 20-year period (when adjusted for inflation), despite the fact that most other things in life have become drastically more expensive; there has only been a slight decrease in the wage gap between female and male professors over a 20-year period; and, perhaps the most telling, business, engineering, and law professors continue to be the highest paid (Miller 2017).

And finally, though we’ve somewhat discussed it without naming it, American academia inserts itself as an imperial force through homogenization—the process of creating sameness across the global industry, to match the dominant culture, regardless of culture and local traditions, wants, or needs. As we enforce our global control of academia though power-knowledge and neoliberalism, we create a homogenized understanding of true knowledge. When you have to be certified of having knowledge by an imperial body, the knowledge, traditions, and cultures of the imperialized are completely wiped out. They become invalid and constantly questioned because they do not fit the “Western” model of knowledge. One localized example of this is s with all varieties of holistic/“Eastern” medicine that are preventative and do cure, but because they’re not approved by the FDA, they’re “quack” medicine. This, then, only reinforces the same dynamics we see in the previous two understandings of globalization, and creates a social narrative—a discourse—about what is or isn’t reliable and true. And it only becomes more apparent as technology is created to back up this institution, spread this Eastern-as-subpar discourse, and then used to further impose our Western truth on others, citing the technology as proof of our greater-importance. 

These three methods of globalization culminate to create an imperialism-level power dynamic between American academia and the academic institutions of other countries. They are either forced to take on our culture, methods, and truths, or be disregarded as non-academic. And even if an institution purposefully attempts to remove itself  from that imperialist culture, it is so deeply ingrained in the system that any attempt is still reproducing that imperialism. As Spivak explains, the “subaltern” (the disadvantaged) can never be “honest” or “authentic” because their entire understanding of the world and their culture has been tainted by the imperial empire.

  Even this paper, for example, is a reproduction of the imperialist American academic institution: I am paying my private education so I may write it, receive a grade, and have my knowledge deemed good enough; I must cite academic sources that all also exist in this system; I must follow the “correct” way of writing these ideas, or else I won’t get my good grade or be taken seriously; and even at my most “authentic” female self, I am still straight, white, upper-middle class, able-bodied, etc. Masters of challenging this imperialism will do better than I can. Lindio-McGovern discusses feminist research methods which many may emply to combat these global, imperialistic, and cannonical methods of education and research. 

(Feminist research methods include: Standpoint: Beginning the research from a very specific place to avoid making essentialist generalizations about a broad group; Reflexivity: Constantly analyzing your own thoughts and biases,  and questioning yourself as to why something stuck out to you; Positionality: Examine the place in which you fit into this hierarchy, and understand how that may impact your data gathering; and Immersion: “Ethnography” immerse yourself in the lives of the people you’re studying, do life as they do to understand the most about it as possible, and capture it in its honest form).

Spivak writes in difficult language and complex terms to her academic audience in order to replicate the difficulties the subaltern experience going through day-to-day life. And both of these ideas are often incorporated into anti-globalization and anti-imperialist pedagogy (as ironic as that may now seem) like within Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies majors. So, there may be some challenging to and progress within the system. 

Some of the most exciting change within academic institutions, and to the world, has come from the students themselves. As Burton and Ballantyne (2016) describe, change often has to be made and forced from below, as in, from those who it most directly impacts. It’s very rare, they explain, for revolutionary change to actually happen from the top down, and when you explain it, it makes sense: why would someone in power purposefully get rid of the power they hold? 

There are quite a few examples of revolution from below, which started with students about educational and academic policy. A growing mass of individual students have spoken out about the rising costs of superfluous fees within their graduate study (Marcus). Individual schools have staged walk-outs against racism (Elsen-Rooney), or vocalized against protections of sexual harassers (Jaschik). And groups of schools are protesting against sexist and outdated dress-codes that encourage victim blaming (Nittle), and are winning against their institutions, creating change of the rules within their schools. But none of these recent student-based protests have been quite as successful on a global scale as the protests against gun-violence (Smith). Though the fight to change legislation is still under way, the protests that began years ago and have been rekindled after the Parkland protests have gone global. There have been international walk-outs, die-ins, and marches that have gotten the attention of the government, and at the very least have encouraged individual school districts to enact change and become better prepared, while they wait for governmental change. Another major movement that has been largely led by young people, though outside of education, has been the climate change movement (as evidenced by Greta Thumburg’s popularity and impact). 

Though none of these have been specifically focused on protesting the imperialistic work of the education system, there has been the surge in creation of and enrollment in the aforementioned college majors (or minors) which didn’t exist even 30 years ago, and, the Millennial generation and younger is more concerned than ever in diversity and equality, often choosing colleges and jobs based on that factor above others that our parents may have focused on (Tuff). And, these protests have encouraged young people to become more politically, culturally, and globally aware. Combined, young people are at the perfect position to finally challenge and create change within the American academic institution. This may mean destroying it completely, as we’ve discussed that hierarchical systems are inherently broken and oppressive (The Invisible Committee), or it may mean a constant re-evaluation of our ideals, methods, policies, and pedagogy—perhaps an integration of those feminist research methods into the entire institution, rather than just an individual researcher’s work. A complex idea like this will never have one simple and true solution, and anyone who tells you there is, is likely a reproduction and benefactor of this imperialist structure. 

And so, to return to and answer my question: the institution of American academia has been constructed to reproduce global imperialism through the use of homogenization and neoliberalism to create and strengthen the power-knowledge dynamic, taking advantage of financial, gender, and racial inequalities both within and outside the American borders, which all serves to maintain the wealthy Eurocentric ideal of knowledge that has existed for centuries. Simple, right? 


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