Essay — From the September 2015 issue

The Neoliberal Arts

How college sold its soul to the market

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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. To escape from neoliberal education, we must escape from neoliberalism. If that sounds impossible, bear in mind that neoliberalism itself would have sounded impossible as recently as the 1970s. As late as 1976, the prospect of a Reagan presidency was played for laughs on network television.

Instead of treating higher education as a commodity, we need to treat it as a right. Instead of seeing it in terms of market purposes, we need to see it once again in terms of intellectual and moral purposes. That means resurrecting one of the great achievements of postwar American society: high-quality, low- or no-cost mass public higher education. An end to the artificial scarcity of educational resources. An end to the idea that students must compete for the privilege of going to a decent college, and that they then must pay for it.

Already, improbably, we have begun to make that move: in the president’s call in January for free community college, in the plan introduced in April by a group of Democratic senators and representatives to enable students to graduate from college without debt, in a proposal put forth by Senator Bernie Sanders for a tax on Wall Street transactions that would make four-year public institutions free for all. Over the past several years, the minimum wage has been placed near the top of the nation’s agenda, already with some notable successes. Now the same is happening with college costs and college access.

But it isn’t happening by itself. Young people, it turns out, are not helpless in the face of the market, especially not if they act together. Nor are they necessarily content to accept the place that neoliberalism has assigned them. We appear to have entered a renewed era of student activism, driven, as genuine political engagement always is, not by upper-class “concern” but by felt, concrete needs: for economic opportunity, for racial justice, for a habitable future. Educational institutions — reactive, defensive, often all but rudderless — are not offering much assistance with this project, and I don’t believe that students have much hope that they will. The real sense of helplessness, it seems, belongs to colleges and universities themselves.

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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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