By Jim Miller
These days it seems a new school year can’t start without being greeted by yet another pronouncement that my profession and/or higher education itself is heading for the dustbin of history. Last year around this time, I pondered the proclaimed death of the English major and this year the front page of the most recent issue of Harper’s is bemoaning “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul.”
In this insightful piece William Deresiewicz hits on themes familiar to anyone who has been around higher education for the last few decades. Neoliberal education is a product of “market fundamentalism,” an “ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of a thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of a person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace—in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.”
Deresiewicz goes on to outline more familiar facts such as the plummeting not just of majors in English and the Humanities but also in the physical sciences such as physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy that have declined by 60 percent. Even math, by 2013, had fallen to be the chosen major of only 1.1 percent of graduates. Instead, it is all about the instrumental needs of the marketplace–critical thinking, imagination, and any notion of the public good outside of the market be damned.
In the neoliberal world, we have “reached the end of history” and capitalism as we know it will go on “replicating itself forever” so there is no need to think beyond the present moment or in anything other than an individualistic and materialistic fashion.
And, as Deresiewicz notes, it’s a bipartisan mission:
We see it in our president’s swipe, last year, at art-history majors. “I promise you,” said our intellectual in chief, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree.” We see it in Governor Rick Scott’s proposal to charge liberal-arts majors higher tuition at Florida’s state universities. We see it, most spectacularly, in Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, one of the country’s great public systems. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker “proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.’ ” The university’s mission would henceforth be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Of course the United States has always been under the sway of the cult of business, but what is new about our present dilemma, Deresiewicz argues, is that in the neoliberal world the traditional “counterbalancing institutions” such as churches, the arts, democracy, journalism, and education have been nearly completely swallowed up by the market. There is no public good “outside” of commercial aims.
Thus “neoliberalism doesn’t believe in the collective.” And it “disarms us in another sense as well. For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness.” The result of this is that “We only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions: one-at-a-time solutions, individual solutions.”
The tragedy of this is that the big problems of our day–systemic racism, economic inequality, the climate crisis, etc.– are not amenable to neoliberal solutions. So as long as we remain prisoners to the gospel of the market, we are doomed to keep heading in the wrong direction. It’s not just that we’ll be unable to appreciate the “useless” fruits of culture, it’s that we will be locked into a dead-end future with no ability to think our way out of it.
Hence, as Deresiewicz puts it, “To escape from neoliberal education, we must escape from neoliberalism” and return to the old-fashioned idea of citizenship, “the creation of an informed populace for the sake of maintaining a free society, a self-governing society” that “was long the guiding principle of education in the United States.” In sum, we need to return to the idea of the public good.
Deresiewicz ends his piece by observing that despite the dire situation that is everywhere from K-12 to higher education, he sees evidence of resistance to the complete commodification of education in the push for free college, renewed student activism, and a general hunger for an alternative to the current hegemony.
And he’s right. Not only are there a lot of smart young people interested in learning about the world to help transform it, there are many people in institutions of higher education across the country who have either never bought into the neoliberal turn or are newly awakened to its deep limitations.
Even some college presidents, like mine at San Diego City College, think that things like social justice are just as important as job skills.
So despite all the negative proclamations from critics and horrible ideas from corporate education reformers, I’m still happy to return to the classroom every year as long as I have students who are hungry for what really matters—and there are many.
Recently, I got a note from one of my former students. It was like a good number of messages I get from people every year. After thanking me for a letter of recommendation, this young person took the time to tell me this:
I want to thank you for everything you have done for me, inside and outside the classroom . . . Not only did I feel that my knowledge was expanded inside your classroom, but you always left me thinking on my way out of class and believe that everything that I learned from you helped me in finding my path in life and also helped me figure out all the baggage that I was carrying.
I also believe that my perspective was expanded. I was introduced to other philosophies and many different ideas in your class. I learned to criticize what is already established. I learned that just because something seems normal (or accepted by the general public) it isn’t necessarily true. I learned to be true to my self.
That is the real work. What is to be done.