Neoliberal by degrees: The repackaging of an American college education

Fog-Stair-676pxWilliam Deresiewicz is interviewed on This is Hell about his Harper’s article, “The Neoliberal Arts.”

Some of the issues Deresiewicz highlights, like the shift in costs from the public treasury to individual families, are indeed problems. But his claim that the consumer culture fostered by a neoliberal ideology has all but eliminated the liberal arts curriculum, or “real” education, I argue, is specious. My two responses:

Upon Further Review

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

Upon Further Review…

William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, wrote a blistering essay in Harper’s last week, The Neoliberal Arts. Many of his points resonate with my own observations as a college instructor for 15 years, albeit at non-“elite” institutions. In this post I want to amplify some of those points, but also challenge other claims in his article, and why, despite my initial enthusiasm for this contribution to the discussion about the state of higher education in the United States, I do not think his argument withstands critical scrutiny.

This is an unusual post for my site. For over a year, the vast majority of my material has been practical, emphasizing the attitudes, tools, and techniques that will help students succeed in their most challenging academic courses. And you don’t have to read very far into my work before you discover a celebration of many of the very traits, values, and aims that I think Deresiewicz and I agree on. But before I perform the autopsy on his article, let me back up about 40 years and set the stage with a biographical perspective.

The First Generation College Student

My Dad, Thaddeus Clifford Hunter, 1910 - 1975

My brother and I are first generation college students. My father, a World War II veteran, but who did not serve overseas for medical reasons, was neither a white nor blue collar worker. Our family inhabited some vague zone between working class and underclass. My mother did not work. When my father died, aged 59, he left no estate, no pension. Nothing but a $60 per month Social Security death benefit. My mom, who as far as I know had never held a job, was left with task of raising me on her own for over 8 years, until I reached the age of 18 and would – hopefully – have a chance at a college education somehow. My brother was 18 and already the hardest worker I knew – he was in his first year of college and figuring out how to pay his own way. He’s still the hardest worker I’ve ever known.

CHS-crestBeing a first generation college student meant that I had no idea what I was doing in those important high school years leading up to college. Last year’s Atlantic article by Liz Riggs is spot on about the difficulties faced by this group of students. I remember an aptitude test that was supposed to give you some guidance about careers that suited you. My two highest scores were florist and aeronautical engineer. In hindsight, I probably would have been perfectly happy had I pursued the first one.

But my brother-in-law was at Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering, and what the heck, I thought, I’m pretty good at math and science. I could move out of state and go to a great school (out-of-state tuition and fees then was $1,264 per quarter) where I knew somebody and who could show me the ropes. That really was the extent of my decision-making process. Now I had done well enough academically in high school that I received some attention for my good standardized test scores and class rank. Colleges and universities various and sundry seemed to be courting me. At least one service academy – West Point – invited me and other Merit Scholars to a nice event where they made their pitch. But it was Tech that I had set my sights on, even though I really didn’t understand what an engineer did once out of school. The prestige and academic strength of the school was a fringe benefit, not a desideratum. I only remember applying to one school. I don’t know if my experience preparing for and selecting a college is typical among first generation college students, but I suspect it isn’t too far off.

I completed my course of studies in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech without distinction. I like to say I obtained my degree because they were sick of seeing me rather than for my academic performance. I moved back home and looked for a job in my field. I came up empty for a few months (this was during the initial 1989-90 contraction of the job market in the military-industrial complex, whose members were the largest employers of electrical engineers), but through the recommendation of one of my college roommates and friend, obtained a position with an environmental consulting firm. And 17 years later, I became an academic with a PhD in philosophy, teaching undergraduates, wherever they may be, the rigors and joys of tackling philosophical questions and problems.

I could regale you with a similar tale of cluelessness when it came to bumbling into graduate school, but that can be a story for another day. Instead, I want to challenge some of the premises of Deresiewicz’s article, because when I apply it to my own experience and that of my first generation cohort, I find that even though he is sometimes speaking in the tongues of angels, his analysis is a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

First, however, let’s look at what I think Deresiewicz gets right. His opening section laments the semantic evolution of college mission statements from the age of complete and conceptually rich sentences to buzzwords and slogans. He concludes that “[t]his is education in the age of neoliberalism.” I think he’s right about that, or rather, that managerial buzzwords are the preferred vocabulary in institutions of higher education at a time when neoliberalism is the reigning ideology of the technocratic imperium.

However, I can easily cite counter-examples, even from institutions that one would presume are the thralls of their neoliberal masters. Consider this vision statement:

To establish ASU as the model for the New American University, measured not by who we exclude, but rather by who we include; pursuing research and discovery that benefits the public good; assuming major responsibility for the economic, social and cultural vitality and health and well-being of the community.

This, I submit, has more than a passing similarity to the mission statement from the 1920s that Deresiewicz quotes favorably. True, four of its words are highlighted in the design of the statement: include, research, responsibility, and community. So while they are “four words – four slogans,” they are not “floating in space, unconnected to one another,” nor are their “meaning and function left undefined.” They are integrated in a complete, “highly wrought,” sentence fragment. It isn’t a sentence, and it doesn’t sound very pretty, but it does, indirectly, recognize the university’s “obligation to its students.”Tech-Tower

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, an institution explicitly dedicated to technological research and entrepreneurship, recognizes the centrality of teaching and “real” education in their mission statement: “The Georgia Tech community—students, staff, faculty, and alumni—will realize our motto of “Progress and Service” through effectiveness and innovation in teaching and learning….”

So as compelling as Deresiewicz’s opening illustration is, the conceit of an antithesis between higher education’s understanding of its mission 100 years ago and now doesn’t hold up once you look at a representative selection. Nevertheless, I agree with his observation that the raison d’être for institutions of higher education has significantly shifted, particularly in its previous focus on student formation and learning to…something else. An older aim, the moral education of college students, is, at most colleges and universities, absent, or at best, muted.

Deresiewicz thinks this is because there is no room in a neoliberal society to encourage the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues. “The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers.” Before the triumph of neoliberalism, we are left to infer, the purpose of education was “one that addresses [students] as complete human beings rather than future specialists – that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.” He is dismayed that his readers have not understood or appreciated that the latter is essential to what he calls a “real” education. Those who don’t get it include some high-powered faculty, college presidents, Republican governors, President Obama, and everyone who snarks at art history majors with “So you decided to go for the big bucks, eh?” and “What are you going to do with that?”

Now I have more patience than some, maybe many, when it comes to thinking about the legitimacy of the moral dimension of education. I happen to think that it is an ineradicable feature of education, whether or not it is explicitly encoded in the policies of the institution or recognized within the system as a value. If Deresiewicz is correct that “only the commercial purpose [of college education] now survives as a recognized value,” then that is what is guiding and shaping the moral formation of all who participate in the institution. The moral criterion might be expressed this way: “Activity A is only worth doing if one is paid to do it.” Under this criterion, one’s pilgrimmage through college or university is merely an instrumental good, a means to this more important end of the best job and salary one deems desirable. Deresiewicz et al are at war with such philistines who would reduce the traditional idea of the university to training for commercial enterprises, and with politicians like Scott Walker who want to revise the mission of a state’s public education system to one whose chief aim is to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” And the Goliath of these people, their champion, is the abstraction Neoliberalism. What Neoliberalism demands, Neoliberalism gets.

Frankly, I think all the attention in the last ten years that has been given to the shrinking of the humanities in higher education is evidence that many people in our society, not least faculties, parents of students, educational researchers, and book publishers, care deeply about it. But perhaps the shift in where and how one obtains “learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake,” or where one might “prepare you for life by inciting contemplation and reflection,” or “build a self” or “become a soul,” or even for that matter, where and how one might obtain a “real” education, is not evidence of the hidden, omnipotent hand of neoliberalism, but of the unsuitability of mass higher education to perform that service under any socio-political regime, of wicking the masses up into an elite liberal curriculum.

The Underclass and Others Without Souls

If I suspend for a moment the personal importance of my vocation in the insular halls of higher education, and recall all of the people in my family and its extensions into the communities and regions where they have lived, Deresiewicz’s complaint completely unravels. For I know directly that my rural, poorly educated, impoverished grandmother most certainly engaged in “contemplation and reflection,” had “a self,” and yes, even managed to “build a soul,” but without access to or under the tutelage of formal education. She obtained it through virtuous action: working and managing her farm, reading her Bible, and at 70 and 80 years of age, raising grandchildren and great-children as their primary caregiver. I think of the character of my father, my grandmother, and so many others in our extended family and their communities, and I have to laugh to keep from crying, or getting angry, at Deresiewicz’s article. For what he assumes is that the institution of formal higher education is  the privileged vehicle of developing in students “the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” Respondeo: T’isn’t.

My father completed high school in the rural parts of Forsyth County, North Carolina. He was a teenager and young adult during the Depression. He farmed, raised chickens, and worked on cars. He had a knack for classification and organization. He loved flowering shrubs and they responded to and rewarded his diligent care for them. He enlisted and did what he was assigned to do while stationed in Newport News (Fort Eustis, I believe) for his part in the war. He also wrote well-reasoned letters to local newspapers (expressed always in his gentle way), kept a journal of his reflections and movie reviews (one of my most treasured possessions), worked at what he knew and did best to support his family, built the family’s first house, taught his youngest son how to fish and to bowl, encouraged his eldest son to develop his mechanical talents, sang the songs of his youth and favorite hymns in his sonorous tenor voice, and with his wife collected what books pleased them for our little bookcase. In short, he did all the things that one might designate as the properties and activities of an ensouled being. It may not have been the type of soul that Deresiewicz would have for him–that I do not doubt. But I have the benefit of the first generation college perspective, one foot in proud poverty and the other in academe, and would wish no other on him and all of my people. My dad would be unmoved by the values of neoliberalism, bored by the fads and clichés of TED, and suspicious of elite educational institutions who believe that their students must lead “a new organization of society.”


Setting aside the lordly, benevolently patronizing attitude Deresiewicz displays toward, well, everyone, there’s a question about whose perspective matters in the choice to pursue the liberal arts, “those fields in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake.” Students and their parents, eyewitnesses to the realities of the neoliberal economy, and the skyrocketing costs of higher education even at public universities, cannot be blamed for asserting their right to obtain an education that will enable them to survive, if not thrive, in this society. That doesn’t make them sheep. It makes them sensible.

I do not share Deresiewicz’s pessimism about the soullessness of higher education today because the students I have met and had the pleasure of teaching — engineers, artists, accountants, pre-med, pre-law, and yes, English, history, philosophy, and classics majors — have souls, every last one of ’em, and in many cases more developed souls than their elders running the asylum. One reason for this is what Deresiewicz describes as the parallel curriculum and parallel college. Students pursue internships, network in student organizations, and participate in a dizzying variety of extracurriculars. Deresiewicz thinks students are “deserting the classroom” for these opportunities. He should be pleased. It’s a feature, not a bug. Because it is in that parallel curriculum that students are more likely to develop their character and moral compass than in their formal studies. Why? My hypothesis is constructed from the history Deresiewicz weaves, telling us how mass higher education was poised for an egalitarian transfer of the liberal curriculum of the “WASP aristocracy’s” prep school system to public higher education:

The heyday of public higher ed, the 1960s, was the heyday of the liberal arts. If those middle-and working-class kids were going to college just to get a better job, why did so many of them major in English? Because they also wanted to learn, think, reflect, and grow. They wanted what the WASP aristocrats had, and the country was wise enough, or generous enough, or egalitarian enough, to let them have it.

One reason a higher percentage of students majored in English and the liberal arts in the 1960s is because there were far fewer options for a four-year degree. In 1963-5, for example, ASU offered about 50 undergraduate majors distributed among four colleges and a school of nursing. About half of those majors were in the College of Liberal Arts. In 2015, ASU offers over 300 undergraduate programs and majors across 13 colleges and schools. I suspect most colleges and universities have similarly multiplied their offerings over the last 50 years. Part of this diversification is wholly American – we don’t just want coffee, we want to be able to choose from 100 combinations of coffee beverages. Part of it reflects the increasing diversity of civil society, and the complexity of social structures and problems.

But another factor is in play here: the proliferation and expansion of graduate schools to accommodate all of those liberally educated young people of the 1960s. I happen to agree with Camille Paglia‘s analysis of this development: when asked how we might mount a defense of the humanities in the academy today, she replies: “It’s hopeless. The humanities have destroyed themselves [by] veering toward postmodernism and poststructuralism. It’s over.” She argues that as parents rebel by refusing to pay the exorbitant costs of undergraduate education, the universities will have to respond by “paring down this ridiculously overinflated curriculum.” Parenthetically, I would modify her claim about the ideological causes of the humanities’ self-immolation to a Malthusian cause: the irrational exuberance for graduate education by those newly minted liberal arts majors of the 60s. Graduate schools ballooned post-1960s to accommodate the glut of humanities undergraduates seeking a professional life within the academy. As a result, perhaps the intellectual standards that Deresiewicz assumes are representative of the humanities departments aren’t what they were in the 60s and earlier.

A student’s education is more comprehensive that schooling. Deresiewicz places too much stock in formal education as the best or only vehicle for “developing the ability to make autonomous choices – to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society.” Sometimes moral education occurs through the intentional effort of educational institutions. Probably most of the time it occurs in spite of those efforts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The parallel curricula college students pursue seems more likely to be an organic response to the commodification of their formal schooling. I’ve seen more evidence of this than Deresiewicz’s cynical view that these efforts are little more than résumé padding “oriented toward future employment.”

I think Deresiewicz is aiming at the wrong target, though he briefly gets a more important one in his sights. The kind of education that he values is best delivered to younger students. The implementation of NCLB has been an utter disaster. Most entering college freshmen are woefully unprepared for the rigors of a liberal arts education and lack the cognitive skills they deserve to have had the opportunity to obtain in high school. But such skills are not easily measured, and certainly not by standardized tests. There are public K-12 schools that implement the kind of curriculum Deresiewicz would applaud, but so far they are rare and too inaccessible to poorer districts.

And Yet…

There has always been a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America. I sympathize with Deresiewicz’s drive to push back against this, and his advocacy for cultivating the life of the mind, and enacting policies to make its pursuit accessible to all. But like it or not, public higher education inevitably must account for its offerings in terms of some set of instrumental goods. The liberal arts will always be at a disadvantage when these justifications are demanded by administrations, who are answerable to boards of regents, state legislatures and governors, and ultimately, the voters. Deresiewicz makes clear in his article the reasons for this: the true value of the study of one of the fields in the liberal arts cannot ultimately be justified in terms of some goal external to it. These fields are ends in themselves. In the strictest sense, they are not good for something else. They are good in themselves. Verum, bonum, pulchrum. Do external goods come by way of them? Of course. Improved critical thinking, weighing evidence, informed citizenship, skills to help one in professions that demand one “to think as hard as possible.” But these are the byproducts of humanistic education, not the goals. Why study English? Certainly not for the sake of improving one’s diction, preparing for journalism school, or entertaining at cocktail parties. Is the quiet contemplation of great works of visual art, listening to Coltrane or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, or singing a Bach Cantata or a Beethoven Mass, good for something? Of course not, unless one is an elitist, who enjoys them from vanity.

In the economies of higher education and employment, it is perfectly reasonable to ask how you will bake your bread. If you can entertain that question as well as stick to your guns that not everything should be pursued as a means to something else, that there are more things worth doing than what one is paid to do, then you are not acquiescing to anti-intellectualism or neoliberalism. But one does not need access to an elite formal education to live well and justly, to care for the land and water and living things more than the amount of one’s salary, to practice hospitality, and to encourage young people to develop practical arts alongside their intellectual, artistic, and athletics pursuits. I know because I was a first generation college student who got that education from my family and community.