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Stirring Times in Higher Education

Stirring Times in Higher Education


When we speak today of a liberal arts education, that particularly cherished notion of producing a “well-rounded” individual through an interdisciplinary, all-encompassing formation, we speak of an ideal that, while originating in the Roman empire, truly found its footing in medieval Europe, continued on through the Renaissance, flourished in the 19th century United States, and died little over a century later. Any claims to the contrary—such as pointing to still existent examples of universities which faithfully cling to the liberal arts tradition—ignore the fact that the values of a liberal arts education are no longer the values of modern society.


Interdisciplinarity, in liberal arts or elsewhere, has never been efficient. Smith recognized the productive qualities of specialization in 1776 (Smith I.I), but it is only within the 20th and 21st centuries that the principle of the division of labor has been applied to education itself, its aim diverted from the construction of the well-rounded individual to the production of the well-oiled machine. The Strasbourg branch of the UNEF, in their 1966 pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life, came to a similar conclusion:

  “There was once a vision--if an ideological one--of a liberal bourgeois university. But as its social base disappeared, the vision became banality. In the age of free-trade capitalism, when the "liberal" state left it its marginal freedoms, the university could still think of itself as an independent power. Of course it was a pure and narrow product of that society's needs--particularly the need to give the privileged minority an adequate general culture before they rejoined the ruling class (not that going up to university was straying very far from class confines). But the bitterness of the nostalgic don (No one dares any longer to speak in the name of nineteenth century liberalism; so they reminisce about the "free" and "popular" universities of the middle ages--that "democracy of "liberal".) is understandable: better, after all, to be the bloodhound of the haute bourgeoisie than sheepdog to the world's white-collars. Better to stand guard on privilege than harry the flock into their allotted factories and bureaux, according to the whims of the "planned economy". The university is becoming, fairly smoothly, the honest broker of technocracy and its spectacle.”

Despite their critiques of its being traditionally limited to the elites, the Strasbourgeois nevertheless recognized the truly idealistic nature of the liberal arts, and what had been lost in its gradual destruction by market forces.


This brings us to the essential question of this essay: what is the role of liberal arts education in modern society? And by extension, what is the role of all university education? The idealistic vision of education as a form of self-fulfillment, the continually trumpeted belief now half-maintained by $60,000 per year liberal arts colleges to create a “well-rounded” individual masks the fact that the university has become a production line whose only goal is to produce discontented yet toothless economic actors. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact historical moment of transition for the transformation of education from formation to production. Certainly it came earlier for many institutions--the UNEF letter is evidence of growing discontent as far back as the 1960s--but the liberal arts college was relatively spared from attack. A good deal of this can be placed on its role not as an “elite” institution (expected to produce a student with a particular societal use) but rather an institution for a certain type of elite child--the classical image of the small New England college where the children of wealthy families could study poetry and pursue artistic endeavors post-graduation with a degree of relative financial freedom comes to mind; this relative lack of socioeconomic diversity remains largely the case today, and enabled the preservation of such a state of affairs. The liberal arts college was thus the inheritor of the “liberal bourgeois university” whose loss the UNEF Strasbourg had half-lamented, albeit in scaled down form; yet today not even this last stronghold can be allowed to stand unconquered. The ideal lives on only in the image produced by the growing industry of university branding experts (AUP’s new website being one of the less subtle examples of   this), who have transformed it into a highly efficient form of lifestyle marketing. “All that is solid melts into PR (Marc Fischer, Capitalist Realism),” and even students’ political involvement--including that directed against the university--presents new marketing tools (Higher Education Marketing).


A good amount of the apparently growing radicalism among the students of today can be ascribed not to the supposed radicalism of their teachers, but to the precariousness of their financial situation, both present and future. Yet the apparent critique of the economic system shared by many students is effectively neutralized by the system itself, and this critique grows weaker from day to day. The most significant tool in the stamping out of student radicalism is not the bad PR of national guard troops disrupting demonstrations and shooting 19-year olds, nor apoplectic warnings against “liberal” indoctrination on college campuses, but the strangling tendrils of the student loan. According to an analysis conducted by U.S. News and World Report, private university costs have increased 157% since 1997; state universities have seen a 237% increase in tuition and fees in the same time period. One can no longer find employment with a high school diploma; the bachelor’s degree has increasingly become a requirement for entry-level positions, and much mockery has taken place of those who refuse to “change” with the changing economic reality, ignoring the fact that education costs have increased at the same time as the education requirements for wage-stagnated entry-level jobs. The uneducated and unemployable grows ever larger as each day passes, as the few remaining unskilled occupations (many of them in retail) are increasingly taken over by automation, and the moderately better off stumble into their indentured servitude, unable to act upon anything but the most passive of resistances.


The useful tool of debt is matched by the seemingly necessary change in the university’s focus, from creating the “well-rounded” individual, to creating the specialized worker. This is not to say that disciplines focused upon specialization (most often the hard sciences) are necessarily negative—the engineer is necessary to society, and must naturally devote a good amount of her time to the study of engineering, the biologist to the study of biology, leaving little time for a more diffused approach. But the recent focus upon producing students ready-made for the job market has been accomplished not through an elevation of the hard sciences, but rather through a corruption of their most admirable principles, as the ideology of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education has taken hold. Taking the microcosm of our own university, consider the fact that we have almost finished completing a new school building primarily devoted to developing the “skills you will need in 2040-50,” as our interim provost so wisely put it, while the library is forced to discard almost 40% of it collection so that it can fit in the basement of the new building One of the greatest legacies of the scientific method, aside from its material accomplishments, is its focus upon free inquiry, and the discovery of truth through empirical knowledge. In this sense, it shares much with the precepts of a liberal education—yet due to its more significant economic importance, it has found itself perverted and twisted in ways which the liberal arts have primarily avoided. Science! Technology! Engineering! Mathematics! has become a maxim for the production (and production is the key word here) of the successful “human of the future.” And in nearly every case, the focus of this promotion campaign is upon STEM’s extraordinary job prospects and financial benefits, with barely lip service paid to the actual spirit and meaning of the work.


The devastating effects of rising student debt and the promotion of disciplines which provide support to currently existing systems of production work as stick-and-carrot to the student, its only motto  “join or die.” Writing in 1969, Guy Debord noted that “the student is being dishonest when he pretends to be scandalized at “discovering” this reason for his education, which has always been proclaimed openly.” The student revolts not due to a sudden awakening of the deception behind her education (which has always been there to see if one only pokes a little below the service), but rather due to a growing awareness of the economic uncertainties awaiting her. Should these uncertainties prove unfounded, the previously proclaimed radicalism dissipates; indeed, her previous radical critique may prove itself an asset in suggesting new means of preventing such a critique arising in others. As Robert Musil had stated years earlier, “uncompromising, passionately committed persons, once they have seen that a concession must be made, usually become its most brilliant champions (Robert, Musil, The Man Without Qualities):” one need only look at the highly lucrative career of revolutionary-cum-new age stockbroker Jerry Rubin, who “sought to become a leader of this new class and give it the rudiments of a conscience.” In many ways, the defanged Marxism of the academy has found its perfect partner in the new market-based education, and together they spit out little Jerry Rubins like a magic slot machine, the coin hopper always full no matter the payout. This has become the goal of the modern university, and by extension, the perverted role of the liberal arts, a perversion no less significant than that of the ideologizing of scientific disciplines. As we pass into the second decade of the 21st century, the long-cherished ideal of the “well-rounded” student has been replaced by that well-oiled machine.

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