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
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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