By John Raby
Last November 15, in The New York Times, Ross Douthat bemoaned what he sees as the moral and intellectual collapse of the American university.1 This is more than a right-wing rant on his part. From the political left, William Deresiewicz has written extensively about the same thing. In an article that appeared in last September’s Harper’s Magazine, Deresiewicz notes that the majority of current undergraduates major in vocational and commercial fields such as business and computer science, while enrollment in the physical sciences, math, humanities, and social sciences is plummeting.2 To underscore the point, Deresiewicz describes Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to rewrite the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement, in which he omitted any reference to public service or improving the human condition, along with the phrase, “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Instead, Walker proposed that the university’s mission should be “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”3 If Douthat and Deresiewicz are right, colleges and universities have traded in the search for truth and love of learning for the art of the deal. They have given in to the pathologies of neoliberalism that afflict the nation as a whole: a blind faith in technology; the worship of wealth and prestige; a turn away from programs of social uplift; and the assignment of worth to education, work, knowledge, and skill based solely on the profit motive.4
As Douthat sees it, the American university changed in the 1900s from a morally grounded servant of truth into a morally vacuous servant of technocracy, with the trend accelerating as the years passed. While universities left some room for inspired teaching as a kind of moral and intellectual veneer, their real work became the acquisition of those technocratic skills that would make their most able researchers and graduates masters of the world. As if that weren’t enough, (a point Douthat does not mention), more and more aspiring college and university faculty were drawn into academic peonage as contingent or adjunct instructors. With time, students saw through the facade. The more perceptive among them started protesting, partly from self-indulgence, but also out of a need to renew their universities’ sense of intellectual and moral purpose. Protests erupted on campuses in the 1960s, and after a dormant period, are back with us again now. Douthat concludes that our colleges and universities are getting what they deserve.5 Although his ideal university never purely existed, and came at the cost of Anglo-Saxon male privilege, he could be on to something.
If he is, our colleges and universities might reflect our nation’s ills. As the Cold War ended, people dreamt of a new birth of freedom, and looked forward to a peace dividend. What actually happened was a victory for corporate technocracy bent on empire. In 1992, in its Defense Guidance, the Pentagon recommended the maintenance of a large military establishment, a ring of bases to girdle the globe, and the ongoing modernization of both conventional and nuclear armament. So it has gone, ever since. National resources turn away from meeting human needs, the promise of a peace dividend is long vanished, and economic inequality is deeply entrenched. Among the great and near-great powers, military establishments remain at or near Cold War levels.6
The problem with this state of affairs is that there are people around the world who are not fond of imperial technocracy or the benefits it claims to offer. They see a planet going culturally and economically bankrupt, and hate it. Here in the US, they see a country suffering from systemic injustice. The protests and backlash are spreading and growing in strength, both on campus and on the street, as with student campaigns on campus to divest from fossil fuels, the Occupy Movement, 350.org, Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, and (in their vastly different ways) the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump presidential campaigns. The June 23 Brexit vote saw the United Kingdom rejecting what its voters saw as the unaccountable bureaucracy of the European Union. Some of these responses are vicious and ugly, as Mr. Trump, Al Qaeda, and ISIS have made plain to us again and again.
So: what are colleges and universities to do? Douthat insists that higher education must revive its moral purpose, but his November 15 column offers no concrete steps to that end. Deresiewicz agrees with Douthat on moral grounds, but his prescription is more concrete, and more demanding. As he puts it, “To escape from neoliberal education, we must escape from neoliberalism.”7 In his view, that means raising the minimum wage so that people can afford to go to college, and treating higher education as a human right. It means free community college. It means college without debt, and a tax on Wall Street transactions to make four-year public institutions free for all. It means college teaching as full-time work, with decent compensation. It means ongoing student activism focused on the common good. It means ending admissions preferences for legacies and athletes as well as admissions practice that recognizes multiple intelligences. It means equalizing resources for K-12 education across class lines, with any preference going to those most in need. It means full state and federal funding for schools from early childhood through college. It means funding schools out of general revenue—not regressive property taxes—and reforming the tax code so that all contribute in proportion to their resources. It means affirmative action based on class, not race. It means taming “the $700 billion gorilla of defense.”8 If Deresiewicz is right, it means there is serious work ahead.
In 1973, Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned the Soviet leadership that the USSR could not be a republic and an empire at the same time because those two forms of government are inalterably opposed.9 The Soviet leadership chose empire, and now the USSR is finished. The same choice faces America and its universities. They can either nurture a just and vibrant republic, with technocracy as its servant, or they can serve a technocratic empire, but they can’t do both at once.
If Douthat and Deresiewicz have commented with any large degree of accuracy, it looks like it’s time to choose.
- Ross Douthat, “A Crisis Our Universities Deserve,” The New York Times review section, Sunday, November 15, 2015.
- William Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Market,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2015. This is only one of many articles by him on the same subject, along with his more extended commentary, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2015).
- Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts.”
- For an extensive discussion of these pathologies, see Preston M. Browning, Struggling for the Soul of Our Country (Eugene Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2016) and Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1991).
- Douthat, “A Crisis Our Universities Deserve.”
- The number of commentators on this subject is legion. Those consulted for this piece are Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013); Hedrick Smith, Who Stole the American Dream? (New York: Random House, 2012); James G. Speth, America the Possible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997); Noam Chomsky, Failed States (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006); Preston M. Browning, Struggling for the Soul of Our Country (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2016); Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb (London: Pluto Press, 2007).
- Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts.”
- William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, p. 240
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Letter to the Soviet Leadership (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).