Critique and the neoliberal university

Posted: 13 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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William Deresiewicz [ht: ja] has a new essay out, “The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market.”

As it turns out, I used a previous version of Deresiewicz’s argument in the conclusion of my lecture this past spring at Manchester University. My sense is, the audience (especially the faculty members, who saw themselves as pawns in the latest attempt to rebrand the university) found it to be the most interesting part of my presentation.

Here’s what I said:

Before I open it up for questions and comments, permit me a few final remarks about utopia, critique, and current trends in our colleges and universities.

As we know, a new discussion is opening up about the role of higher education in the United States. On one hand, many economists and policymakers see college education as the panacea for growing inequality (forgetting, of course, that almost everyone in the top 1 percent have college degrees but the top .01 percent is pulling away from everyone else, including everyone else with a college degree). On the other hand, state funding for public universities continues to decline and all colleges and universities—private as well as public—are raising the fees for tuition as well as room and board. The result is what we have come to call the “new corporate university”—in which the faculty increasingly work for the administration (instead of participating in the self-governance of the university), students are saddled with higher and higher levels of debt (which, at over $1 trillion, for the first time in U.S. history surpasses credit-card debt), and we’re all under increasing pressure to make this increasingly expensive and less-accessible education pay off.

By doing what? By offering marketable skills (in other words, a kind of vocational education) and focusing on job placement (so that “our” students can compete better with “their” students).

The effect is that our colleges and universities are being radically transformed—and there’s less and less space for critical thinking, for the utopian moment of a ruthless criticism.

Less space for what Cardinal Newman, in the mid-nineteenth century, referred to as the conversation that lies at the heart of the university:

You have come, not merely to be taught, but to learn. You have come to exert your minds. You have come to make what you hear your own, by putting out your hand, as it were, to grasp it and appropriate it. You do not come merely to hear a lecture, or to read a book, but you come for that catechetical instruction, which consists in a sort of conversation between your lecturer and you. He tells you a thing, and he asks you to repeat it after him. He questions you, he examines you, he will not let you go till he has proof, not only that you have heard, but that you know.

And what much recent recently William Deresiewicz (in his American Scholar article and now in his book Excellent Sheep) warned us about:

The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities. . . Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. . .

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them.

In my own little corner of the academy, the discipline of economics, that idea of the intellectual—of a commitment to social transformation, thinking one’s way toward a vision of the good society, of speaking truth to power—has given way to presenting a series of formal, mathematical models and expecting students to manipulate them without understanding either the underlying assumptions or the economic and social consequences of the models.

It’s a situation that is perhaps best depicted in the Inside Job, still the best film about the conditions and consequences of the crash of 2007-08. Even now, many of my colleagues in economics—who failed to even include the possibility of such a crash in their models, let alone offer policies that would effectively deal with the fallout—continue to teach the same models, in the same fashion, as if nothing had happened.

Hopefully, my remarks this evening have served to remind us of the necessary role of utopia and the critique of political economy and, perhaps most important, what the idea of the university is.

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