Essay — From the September 2015 issue

The Neoliberal Arts

How college sold its soul to the market

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This is education in the age of neoliberalism. Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.

The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers. I published a book last year that said that, by and large, elite American universities no longer provide their students with a real education, one that addresses them as complete human beings rather than as future specialists — that enables them, as I put it, to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul. Of all the responses the book aroused, the most dismaying was this: that so many individuals associated with those institutions said not, “Of course we provide our students with a real education,” but rather, “What is this ‘real education’ nonsense, anyway?”

A representative example came from Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist:

Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.

Pinker is correct. He is emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education. David Brooks, responding to both Pinker and myself, laid out the matter very clearly. College, he noted, has three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive (learning stuff, or better, learning how to think), and the moral (the purpose that is so mysterious to Pinker and his ilk). “Moral,” here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

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“Carita,” a hand-embroidered found photograph

Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial. Everybody knows that the percentage of students majoring in English has plummeted since the 1960s. But the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more, by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math. At most colleges, the lion’s share of undergraduates majors in vocational fields: business, communications, education, health. But even at elite institutions, the most popular majors are the practical, or, as Brooks might say, the commercial ones: economics, biology, engineering, and computer science.

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake. It is the liberal arts, but understood in their true meaning, as all of those fields in which knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, the sciences and social sciences included. History, sociology, and political-science majors endure the same kind of ritual hazing (“Oh, so you decided to go for the big bucks”) as do people who major in French or philosophy. Governor Rick Scott of Florida has singled out anthropology majors as something that his state does not need more of. Everybody talks about the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — but no one’s really interested in science, and no one’s really interested in math: interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology.

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’s most recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press), is now out in paperback.

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