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August 28, 2015


A scholar whose name I cannot pronounce (William Deresiewicz) has authored an essay in the current edition of Harper’s Magazine that every citizen should read. It is entitled: “The Neoliberal Arts, How college sold its soul to the market.” He teaches writing, and recently spent a semester teaching writing at what he calls “an elite liberal-arts college.” His piece is full of fact-based insights into what is and is not going on in higher education today and how the corporate mentality financed by deep pockets has taken over not only the structure of higher education but the minds (let’s all get rich!) and pocketbooks (I owe 60 thousand dollars on my student loan!) of higher education’s customers (aka “the students”) what with student debt in excess of credit card debt in America and, with elite university presidents “little more than lackeys of the plutocracy, with all the moral stature of the butler in a country house.”

I have had some indirect exposure to this corporate purchase of higher education by way of my now-deceased wife who was a university professor and used to confide her workaday difficulties to me. As with medical doctors who are offered free vacations for themselves and their families in exotic locales by pill-pushing pharmaceutical corporations, so textbook companies offered various inducements to my wife to recommend their textbooks for use at the university, even suggesting approval of her input into their future texts as an inducement for her approval of their use at the university.

The conventions she attended attracted textbook publishing companies whose free drinks and food were designed to sell their books. She considered such high-pressure tactics and food and drink to be distracting since she actually attended such conventions to hear speakers and the latest ideas specific to her field. As an academic, she also (and as Deresiewicz has well-described it) joined her fellow professors in having to attend the drudge of university committee meetings back home with  all the accompanying petty politics, the slog for tenure, promotion and status competition that are involved in such wastes of time. She volunteered to take notes at such meetings so she could have something to do and to take her mind off all the work she had to do back in her office.

With this as prologue, let’s get to the meat of Deresuewucz’s complaint, which is that education is in the age of neoliberalism, an ideology that reduces all values to money values; that the worth of a thing is the price of the thing; that the worth of a person is the wealth of a person. You are therefore valuable only in terms of your activity in the marketplace. He notes that one can call it Reaganism or Thatcherism or market fundamentalism or economism – there are several synonyms that fit the description.

With such a view we are not called upon to solve our problems collectively as in a democracy, but rather as individuals as typified by Thatcher’s famous un-definition of society: “There’s no such thing. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” That could not be the statement of a Tory or Labourite in the UK or Democrat or Republican here; it has all the earmarks of a nihilist mindset that pre-dates the Paleolithic since if there is no such thing as a society then there is no rationale for the existence of government itself. The cavemen had no need for government to regulate their hunting and gathering. Neither do we need government according to Social Darwinists and right wing libertarians where “the market” reigns supreme. We will leave our economy and our other institutions (now to include education) to the tender mercies of the rich and corporate class. We will not teach our young minds Shakespeare and Plato; there’s no money in that. We will teach them leadership and how to do ones and zeros and arbitrage and play currency market games and never mind that we are not teaching them to think and how to live (in Deresiewicz’s  words) “confidently, courageously, and hopefully.” We are not teaching such values since only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. You are what you’re worth, so in this corporate-owned world of higher education you are a walking dollar sign and not a human being; you have surrendered your humanity to the Dow, dictatorship of quarterly analysts, and the black hole of the corporate void of market economics and struggle not only for survival but how to get rich.

An example of how the foregoing translates from corporate theory into reality can be found in what the governor of my now home state of Florida has proposed to the legislature as policy in order to expand the corporate grip on higher education. He was, unsurprisingly, a very rich ex-CEO of an HMO before being elected governor as a Republican. He is an aficionado of STEM and has openly stated that anthropology majors are something the state doesn’t need (What? No King Tut?) and has even proposed that the state’s colleges and universities charge higher tuition for liberal-arts majors than for other majors. He has been out-lackeyed in proposing corporate objectives with public monies only by the Republican Scott Walker’s attempt to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. Per Deresiewicz, 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.”

I here note that corporations are getting enough corporate welfare via our public financing of higher education that we taxpayers bear in handing over an educated workforce to them without having their lackeys redescribe mission statements and redesign curricula to meet their specific needs. Is there no end to their greedy instincts and designs in their myopic pursuit of profit? How much welfare is enough?

Of course (per Deresiewicz) we have always had what can be called a business civilization in this country, but we have also always had counterbalancing institutions to offset such a civilization that have advanced a different set of values, values such as the churches, the arts and even the democratic tradition itself, but now “the market” has become so powerful that it is swallowing the very things that are supposed to keep it in check. Thus journalism has become “the media.” Government is bought and paid for; the prosperity gospel has arisen as one of the most prominent movements in American Christianity; and (per the theme of this essay) colleges and universities are acting like businesses, and in the service of businesses. Trained as robots for use by corporations and incentivized by the prospect of great wealth, many of today’s students are captive of one of neoliberalism’s fundamental tenets: that we need not pursue change because we have reached the end of history, that we are in a steady-state of free-market capitalism that will go on replicating itself forever; thus  there is  no need for postmodern youth to think or imagine change, that as adults they should endlessly pursue wealth and status.

Corporate control of education has given us a caste system: “winners and losers,” “makers and takers,” the “best and the brightest,” the whole gospel of Ayn Rand. I reject such mindless word play by corporations and nihilists such as Rand. We are humans, not widgets. We need to be taught to think analytically, not as robots-in-training. It is time for our “countervailing force” to be heard.   GERALD   E

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