Written by: Stephen Hsu
Primary Source: Information Processing
This essay is an entertaining read, if somewhat wrong headed. See here for an earlier post that discusses Steve Pinker’s response to Deresiewicz’s earlier article Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.
The Neoliberal Arts (Harpers): … Now that the customer-service mentality has conquered academia, colleges are falling all over themselves to give their students what they think they think they want. Which means that administrators are trying to retrofit an institution that was designed to teach analytic skills — and, not incidentally, to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on the big questions — for an age that wants a very different set of abilities. That is how the president of a top liberal-arts college can end up telling me that he’s not interested in teaching students to make arguments but is interested in leadership. That is why, around the country, even as they cut departments, starve traditional fields, freeze professorial salaries, and turn their classrooms over to adjuncts, colleges and universities are establishing centers and offices and institutes, and hiring coordinators and deanlets, and launching initiatives, and creating courses and programs, for the inculcation of leadership, the promotion of service, and the fostering of creativity. Like their students, they are busy constructing a parallel college. What will happen to the old one now is anybody’s guess.
So what’s so bad about leadership, service, and creativity? What’s bad about them is that, as they’re understood on campus and beyond, they are all encased in neoliberal assumptions. Neoliberalism, which dovetails perfectly with meritocracy, has generated a caste system: “winners and losers,” “makers and takers,” “the best and the brightest,” the whole gospel of Ayn Rand and her Übermenschen. That’s what “leadership” is finally about. There are leaders, and then there is everyone else: the led, presumably — the followers, the little people. Leaders get things done; leaders take command. When colleges promise to make their students leaders, they’re telling them they’re going to be in charge. …
We have always been, in the United States, what Lionel Trilling called a business civilization. But we have also always had a range of counterbalancing institutions, countercultural institutions, to advance a different set of values: the churches, the arts, the democratic tradition itself. When the pendulum has swung too far in one direction (and it’s always the same direction), new institutions or movements have emerged, or old ones have renewed their mission. Education in general, and higher education in particular, has always been one of those institutions. But now the market has become so powerful that it’s swallowing the very things that are supposed to keep it in check. Artists are becoming “creatives.” 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 colleges and universities are acting like businesses, and in the service of businesses.
What is to be done? Those very same WASP aristocrats — enough of them, at least, including several presidents of Harvard and Yale — when facing the failure of their own class in the form of the Great Depression, succeeded in superseding themselves and creating a new system, the meritocracy we live with now. But I’m not sure we possess the moral resources to do the same. The WASPs had been taught that leadership meant putting the collective good ahead of your own. But meritocracy means looking out for number one, and neoliberalism doesn’t believe in the collective. As Margaret Thatcher famously said about society, “There’s no such thing. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” As for elite university presidents, they are little more these days than lackeys of the plutocracy, with all the moral stature of the butler in a country house.
Neoliberalism disarms us in another sense as well. For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today, and so much of the negative response to my suggestion that students ought to worry less about pursuing wealth and more about constructing a sense of purpose for themselves, presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options. That they have to do what the market tells them. A Princeton student literally made this argument to me: If the market is incentivizing me to go to Wall Street, he said, then who am I to argue?
I have also had the pleasure, over the past year, of hearing from a lot of people who are pushing back against the dictates of neoliberal education: starting high schools, starting colleges, creating alternatives to high school and college, making documentaries, launching nonprofits, parenting in different ways, conducting their lives in different ways. I welcome these efforts, but none of them address the fundamental problem, which is that we no longer believe in public solutions. We only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions: one-at-a-time solutions, individual solutions.
The worst thing about “leadership,” the notion that society should be run by highly trained elites, is that it has usurped the place of “citizenship,” the notion that society should be run by everyone together. Not coincidentally, citizenship — the creation of an informed populace for the sake of maintaining a free society, a self-governing society — was long the guiding principle of education in the United States. …