Sharing: “An Education for Empire”

An Education for Empire: The Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford Foundations in the Construction of Knowledge

I just finished this excerpt from the Canadian “independent researcher” Andrew Gavin Marshall concerning the role of three major American foundations in shaping the social sciences through the 20th century. He makes the case that three foundations, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford, used their immense resources to influence the development of the social sciences and encourage them to pursue pro-market, pro-“democracy” lines of research. Marshall attributes an “agenda of empire” to these foundations, who he sees as having co-opted academia to generate support for the status quo.

It’s an interesting idea, and following my Chomsky kick I’m quite sympathetic to critiques of “the university,” so much of his argument makes sense. It’s important to hold in mind that while on the surface these foundations seem to be investing huge amounts of money towards social causes, they emerged from the personal fortunes of robber barons and leading industrialists (and are still largely controlled by those families), and it is therefore reasonable to entertain that these foundations are still serving the interests of those powerful families.

It’s also worthwhile considering the relationship between funding and scholarship. Competing for a grant forces a scholar to change their own interests to appease the funder; it should be no stretch to imagine that to be successful as an academic, one must be very good at speaking to those desires. Thus, it is exactly those academics who are successful are the ones most likely to have worked in line with the foundations. Thus, funders shape the knowledge being generated. This isn’t a radical idea, I’m sure many of your have heard it before.

Anyway, it’s not a long read, I recommend it if you have the chance. In the months that I’ve been away from university, I’ve come to have some perspective on the world of academic thought and particularly how academic thought is one style of thought among many, with a different history, different potentials, and subject to different forces. I won’t take the step of calling any of them “good” or “bad” or “helpful” or “harmful,” but rather “worthy of contemplation.”


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