Eight Theses

The below text is adapted from a now defunct blog.


I. Defenses of higher education in the liberal arts generally appeal to Enlightenment ideals of individual development. What remains unspoken is that said ideals historically presumed massive exclusion. Liberal arts education was reserved for children from established, propertied families. In the age of nascent capitalism, long before public elementary schools became common, children of poor families were shunted into factory or farm labor while their wealthy counterparts learned Latin. Prominent philosophers were sanguine about this stratification. As John Locke expressed in "Some Thoughts Concerning Education," it was only natural that "young gentlemen" should develop their "rational capacities," while poor children were placed into "working schools" to learn the virtue of "industriousness." Liberal arts education existed primarily to preserve a vestigial aristocratic privilege.

II. The widespread charge against the neoliberal university is that it has simply become a vocational school. Why the increasing rationalization and administrative bloat? Why the rigid cementation of subfields, the devaluation of non-STEM disciplines, and the incessant emphasis on marketability? Whatever happened to the idea that education should produce well-rounded individuals, rather than job candidates? It seems that the neoliberal university serves a function not unlike the "working schools" of Locke's day. It exists not to develop individuals' rational capacities, but to train them in the virtue of industriousness and ensure their acquiescence to the logics of the market.

III. Governor Ronald Reagan famously compelled the University of California system to introduce tuition for California residents in the early 1970s. This is widely considered the beginning of the end for the "golden age" of the American public university. But one man did not start the trend. UC schools had been steadily raising student fees and out-of-state tuition for decades before Reagan took office. The cracks in the dam had been widening for a long time. Indeed, the UC system's initial stated goal of ensuring upward mobility for state residents began to erode shortly after the university was established. Such is the pattern with so many American social programs: they begin to collapse even as they are constructed.

IV. Most high-profile American public universities were established in the fin de siècle, when industrial labor was the bedrock of economic life. In other words, the public university entered the scene when the overwhelming majority of the population had no expectation of ever attending one. Of course, this was the point, at least nominally: to make higher education accessible, and to give working class students a leg up into stable, dignified living. This Millian "leveling" mission is not inherent to the university, however; it is a later addition that sits uneasily with the longer-established aristocratic logic of higher education. The material basis for the classical university was systematic class exclusion and expropriation. The maintenance (indeed, ballooning) of a toiling proletariat is what enabled children of propertied families to develop themselves as individuals. The central contradiction of the public university is that it endeavors to preserve and extend the Enlightenment ideal of liberal arts education while undermining its material basis.

V. I would conjecture that the new international division of labor has contributed to the marketization of the university. It is probably not a coincidence that the most dramatic tuition increases at public universities began as the American manufacturing sector began to decline. As industrial production shifted into the Third World, the university increasingly assumed its role as a first step down an alternative career path for the children of working class families. Yet, paradoxically, as the university became more attractive to working class students it also became less affordable, thanks in part to rising and increasingly inelastic demand. The university promised a type of long-term material security that seemed increasingly elusive as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. To cash in on this promise, to grasp some semblance of economic security in neoliberal capitalism, students became increasingly willing to take on massive debt burdens. In all but the elite universities, this promise would rarely be redeemed.

VI. Delayed gratification is the language of the neoliberal university. Undergraduates are told they will be able to make fine lives for themselves if they accept tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Graduate students are promised secure job placements if they buckle down and live on a meager stipend for several years. Adjunct faculty, forever growing in number, are encouraged to endure insecurity and poor remuneration for years in the hopes of one day getting a tenure-track, or at least full-time, position. Of course, nothing is truly guaranteed. Graduate students and contingent faculty must persistently "network," update their CVs compulsively, apply for every job they see listed, and cross their fingers. Even tenured professors must prove their worthiness and periodically demonstrate that their departments are economical, particularly if they teach in the dreaded humanities. Even if the promised gratification is realized, it remains eternally precarious.

VII. The new economic climate of the First World is typified by a polarization of the labor market into at-will McJobs on one end and administrative bullshit jobs on the other. The university reflects this polarization, with sixty-odd percent of teaching labor performed by adjuncts, while full-time professors are saddled with more and more administrative tasks. The Third World economic climate, on the other hand, is typified by decades of rapid industrialization and liberalization with an inordinately high, and frequently denied, human cost. Wherever possible, the neoliberal university takes root in the Third World, generally in its most market-friendly forms: specialized satellite campuses of elite schools (e.g. Yale-NUS), or widely distributed MOOCs. Improving the global accessibility of higher education in the neoliberal project requires increasing marketization, the erosion of interpersonal student-professor contact, and an increasingly uncertain future for the lecturers compelled to patch together a living with part-time and online work.

VIII. Can professors take risks? Small courses, previously untaught courses, courses dealing in topics ordinarily excised from the canon — these are all perpetually under fire from an administrative apparatus operating under the neoliberal rationale. (It is hardly surprising that the most highly paid professors at virtually any university tend to work in Business and Economics departments.) The philosophers have only worked within the university. As Philosophy departments keep getting cut, however, the point is to change it.

December 26, 2015

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