If U.S. higher education is in crisis, as a spate of recent books and articles would have it, then it’s a strange crisis. Outside the anti-intellectual Right, and even inside it when its writers forget themselves, we hear that advanced degrees are more important than ever. We need higher education as an escape from the increasingly unsafe safety net and the declining prospects faced by less-educated Americans. And we need it as a nationalist project to fend off economic competitors. By most accepted measures, elite universities and colleges—other than the public flagships, that is—are providing better services and a higher quality education than ever before.

But there is something deeply wrong, even in these “thriving” schools. Perhaps no word better captures it than “corporatization”—and perhaps no phenomena better represent it than the insane debt loads students are now taking on and the worsening treatment of graduate students, junior faculty, and non-faculty staff at the hands of a ballooning administrative stratum. The same trends are visible in many public schools, which also suffer from plummeting state funding, due to interrelated ideological and budgetary reasons that predate but were exacerbated by the post-crash recession. With the decline in public provision has come the rise of corporate for-profits. Recent Senate investigations reveal these schools to be even more sinister than leftists had imagined.

If crisis is just another word for opportunity, then the question is, opportunity for whom? The forces driving many of these changes have capitalized on powerful, business-friendly, and austerity-happy trends in American politics to solidify their plans for post-secondary education. The articles in this special section, along with others that will appear on Dissent’s website, examine these plans and their consequences. But they also look to other constituencies—that is, the majority of Americans—who have not benefited from the changes to the university over the last few decades, and who might use this opportunity to fight for their interests and their values.

The utopians of the New Left have been roundly criticized for retreating into academia, diverting radical political energy away from popular struggles and toward a critique of oppressive and exclusionary syllabi. However true this story rang in the 1980s and 1990s, it doesn’t make sense now. Structural changes in the U.S. economy have made more and more people dependent on colleges and universities for their livelihoods, in direct or indirect ways, and these livelihoods are more and more precarious. The work done at universities, the arguments that go on there, the organizing efforts that succeed or fail—all these have repercussions not just for the ivory tower, but for the larger public.


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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.