Neoliberal and new liberal arts

In an essay for Harper’s William Deresiewicz identifies neoliberalism as the primary foe of higher education. I certainly have no interest in defending neoliberalism, though it is a rather amorphous, spectral enemy. It’s not a new argument, either.

Here are a few passages the give you the spirit of the argument:

The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers. I published a book last year that said that, by and large, elite American universities no longer provide their students with a real education, one that addresses them as complete human beings rather than as future specialists — that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.

Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.

Now here are two other passages.

it is no wonder that an educational system whose main purpose had been intellectual and spiritual culture directed to social ends has been thrown into confusion and bewilderment and brought sadly out of balance. No wonder, too, that it has caught the spirit of the business and industrial world, its desire for great things-large enrollment, great equipment, puffed advertisement, sensational features, strenuous competition, underbidding.

the men flock into the courses on science, the women affect the courses in literature. The literary courses, indeed, are known in some of these institutions as “sissy” courses. The man who took literature too seriously would be suspected of effeminacy. The really virile thing is to be an electrical engineer. One already sees the time when the typical teacher of literature will be some young dilettante who will interpret Keats and Shelley to a class of girls.

As that last quote probably gives away, these quotes are from a different time. Both are quotes found in Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature: the first are the worlds of  Frank Gaylord Hubbard from his 1912 MLA address, and the second is Irving Babbitt from his 1908 book Literature and the American College.  Long before neoliberalism was a twinkle in the eyes of Thatcher and Reagan, universities were under threat from business and industry and the humanities were threatened by engineering. Certainly there are some “yeah, but” arguments to be made, as in “yeah, but now it’s serious.” Nevertheless, these are longstanding tensions. I imagine one could trace them back even further, but a century ago is apt. Back then, American universities were responding to the turmoil of the 1860s and the second industrial revolution of the 1880s and 90s. Today we respond to the turmoil of the 1960s and the information revolution of the 1980s and 90s. There’s an odd symmetry really. Let’s hope we’re not verging on 30 years of global war and depression as our 1915 colleagues were.

Ultimately it’s hard for me to disagree with Deresiewicz’s call for action that we should:

Instead of treating higher education as a commodity, we need to treat it as a right. Instead of seeing it in terms of market purposes, we need to see it once again in terms of intellectual and moral purposes. That means resurrecting one of the great achievements of postwar American society: high-quality, low- or no-cost mass public higher education. An end to the artificial scarcity of educational resources. An end to the idea that students must compete for the privilege of going to a decent college, and that they then must pay for it.

However even if high quality, low cost higher ed was accomplished, I’m not sure that we would get away from the connection between learning and career. Deresiewicz describes the liberal arts as “those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake. ” I think this is misleading. I understand his point, that scholarship doesn’t need to have a direct application or lead to profit. At the same time, I am skeptical of the suggestion of purity here. I prefer some version of the original, medieval notion of the liberal arts as the skills required by free people to thrive.

But here’s the most curious line from the article: “business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.” I’m not exactly sure what being “smart” or “thinking hard” mean here (beyond, of course, thinking like Deresiewicz does). But what’s really strange is that last line: why are professors and their classes not good at teaching organizational or interpersonal skills?  Is this even true?  I may be wrong but it seems to me that Deresiewicz is implying these things aren’t worth teaching.  I suppose it’s a stereotype to imagine the professor as disorganized and lacking interpersonal skills. Are we celebrating that here?

I’ll offer a different take on this. When we adopted the German model of higher education we decided that curriculum and teaching would follow research. But that was already a problem a century ago, as this passage from Graff recounts:

All the critics agreed that there was a glaring contradiction between the research fetish and the needs of most students. In his 1904 MLA address, Hohlfield speculated that “thousands upon thousands of teachers must be engaged in presenting to their students elements which, in the nature of things, can have only a rare and remote connection with the sphere of original research,” and he doubted the wisdom of requiring all members of the now-expanding department faculties to engage in such research. To maintain that every college instructor “could or should be an original investigator is either a naive delusion concerning the actual status of our educational system or, what is more dangerous, it is based on a mechanical and superficial interpretation of the terms ‘original scholarship’ or ‘research work.'” (109)

The hyper-specialization of contemporary faculty only intensifies this situation. The “solution” has been adjunctification but that’s really more like an externality.  Changing the way that we fund higher education probably makes a lot of sense to everyone reading this post. Imagining that things will be, should be, like they used to be in the 1960s, when public higher ed and liberal arts were in their “heydey,” seems less sensible.

If the neoliberal arts, as Deresiewicz terms them, are untenable, then we are still faced with building a new liberal arts, which is really what our colleagues a century ago did: inventing things like majors (in the late 19th century) and general education (in the early 20th), which we still employ. In the category of “be careful what you wish for,” increased public funding will undoubtedly lead to increased public accountability. I’m not sure whether you like your chances in the state capitol or in the marketplace, or even if you can tell the difference. Whatever the new liberal arts will be, they’ll have to figure that out, just as their 20th century counterparts learned to thrive in a nationalist-industrial economy and culture.

  • Timothy Burke

    I think that if we are good at teaching interpersonal interaction or organizational skills, it’s kind of by accident. Which might be fine–in fact, I think there’s an important idea in there about how you teach those kinds of things. But that rubs up pretty hard against the fact that much of what faculty say they do in teaching, in curricular development, and in the management of scholarly knowledge is about intentionality, and much of how we narrate it to our students and our publics reflects our belief that what we do, we do on purpose in accord with our professional training.