The purpose of education

I’m not generally a big fan of Daily Mail style “why oh why” pieces about the decline of civilization, but Harper’s magazine has one I find to be remarkably insightful for the genre. If you want to burn your free paywall passage for the month you can go read the whole thing, it’s titled The Neoliberal Arts. You can also get a subscription for $18 a year.

Anyway, within said article William Deresiewicz discusses how college (university) education has abandoned its most important goals to slavishly follow neoliberal market doctrine. He begins by comparing an old 1920s draft of a college’s founding principles to its new buzzword-compliant focus-group-tested mission statement of four words. (Feel free to go read both).

The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. […]

A spatial structure, the sentence also suggests a temporal sequence. Thinking clearly, it wants us to recognize, leads to thinking independently. Thinking independently leads to living confidently. Living confidently leads to living courageously. Living courageously leads to living hopefully.

You can find garbage keyword mission statements and statements of values everywhere these days. Some places even abandon all pretense at narrative and choose a tag cloud or venn diagram as part of their mission statement.

But that’s not the important part of the essay. The meat of the issue is how education now serves neoliberal ideals:

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 news is full of articles about the education bubble and the rising cost of higher education. Almost all of the articles analyze the issue in terms of neoliberal cost/benefit analysis — how much a college degree costs, and how much financial gain it will get you throughout your life.

What’s missing when you look at education in raw financial terms? Well, you’re only looking at a third of the picture:

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.

Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value.

It seems to me that this ignoring of the moral purpose of education is behind two other common topics in articles about education.

The first is the observation that students are less resilient and more needy these days:

Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.

Students are not simply unable to live “confidently, courageously and hopefully”. Which then leads to the second observation, that college campuses are increasingly hostile to any kind of challenging material, demanding trigger warnings and not being able to take jokes. While this is often framed as “political correctness” and used as an excuse to bash liberals, I suspect that we hear about liberal censorship more often partly because college students are statistically far more likely to be liberal, and partly because there are some very loud right wing media outlets keen on selling a persecution narrative.

But while college students seem to be more liberal than ever in their actual beliefs, many do not identify as liberal; and they are more neoliberal than ever:

New research reveals that college freshmen hold increasingly liberal views on key social issues like same-sex marriage and rights for illegal immigrants.

In the early days of the Freshman Survey, in the late 1960s, nearly three-quarters of respondents said it was important to them “to develop a meaningful philosophy on life.” Less than half said it was important to them to be “well off financially.” In the most recent survey, those responses were practically reversed, with 80 percent of freshmen saying it was important to be well-off and just 47 percent emphasizing a need for a life philosophy.

People who are not confident, courageous and hopeful are going to get very upset when things go badly or their ideas are challenged.

So what are colleges teaching, other than how to get a job? Deresiewicz identifies three common tropes: leadership, service, and creativity. Take Georgia Gwinnett College, for example:

The GGC Annual Awards, presented at our Convocation ceremony, mirror the four core values of Georgia Gwinnett College. These four values emphasize and encapsulate our vision and mission: Service, Scholarship, Creativity, and Leadership. These values inspire and guide our actions, and they are the hallmarks of GGC.

What’s so terrible about leadership, service and creativity? Deresiewicz explains:

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. […]

“Service” is what the winners engage in when they find themselves in a benevolent mood. Call it Clintonism, by analogy with Reaganism. Bill Clinton not only ratified the neoliberal consensus as president, he has extended its logic as a former president. Reaganism means the affluent have all the money, as well as all the power. Clintonism means they use their money and power, or a bit of it, to help the less fortunate — because the less fortunate (i.e., the losers) can’t help themselves.

“Creativity,” meanwhile, is basically a business concept, aligned with the other clichés that have come to us from the management schools by way of Silicon Valley: “disruption,” “innovation,” “transformation.” “Creativity” is not about becoming an artist. No one wants you to become an artist. It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques […]

He also makes the point that:

For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness.

Perhaps this is why, going back to the survey of students,

[…] the progressive viewpoints haven’t translated into significantly greater levels of activism or heightened enthusiasm for national politics.

While I’ve got definite misgivings about aspects of my education, there’s no doubt in my mind that I left college confident, courageous and hopeful. I was convinced that given enough time and effort, I could do anything; I was confident in my beliefs, and politically engaged.

I’m not really sure how exactly college taught me that. Certainly, there was a lot of challenging of ideas — challenges which could go as far as outright mockery. There were a lot of arguments, and a lot of argumentative assholes — probably more than was strictly necessary, and sometimes I was one of them. However, that’s probably served me a lot better in the long run than trigger warnings and sensitivity training would have.

We’ve ended up in a strange world where discussion is both neutered and savage, inexcusable and ineffective. In the face-to-face world, universities ban speakers and student publications that some people might find offensive. In the online world, anonymous trolls egg on would-be mass murderers and post anonymous death threats to people they disagree with. Neither extreme is good, but I’m pretty sure that healthy discourse lies somewhere in the middle, and encompasses occasional satire and mockery.

Unfortunately, most people don’t want to have their ideas challenged; they don’t want to be exposed to the new and unexpected. So as long as education is seen as a business, the best way to make it profitable will be to provide vocational training for a corporate job, rather than an actual education.

As to solutions, well, I don’t have any to propose. I’m still at the “understanding the problem” phase. Increasingly, though, it feels like we’re overdue for another entirely new political system.

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