By formal disciplinary classification, I’m a political scientist, so I was at this year’s American Political Science Association meeting. As well as attending a number of panels on political theory, and giggling at what the “science” side of the discipline is studying, I went to a number of panels about the political challenges facing universities. This included Cary Nelson, President of the AAUP, talking about the association’s call for tenure for all “long term” teaching staff. This is good as far as it goes, but that doesn’t seem to be very far; everyone (and not just academics) should be protected from being arbitrarily fired, but simply expanding tenure to all academics employed for more than six years would largely leave intact the casualization of academic work and the managerial relationship to students that are characteristic of the neoliberalization of universities (though Nelson does say that tenure for adjuncts must include the right to participate in faculty governance, an aspect of tenure which, to the extent it still exists, is a site of resistance against the administrative take over of universities). More generally, it seems to me that when valuable institutions are under attack, it’s rarely sufficient to simply defend the status quo, especially when, as with universities, that “status quo” has existed more as some kind of perverse regulative ideal than as a reality for, what, thirty years?
This defensive stance was also in evidence in a paper by Wendy Brown on the importance of the liberal arts. Brown developed in detail the argument that the liberal arts are important because they develop skills and attitudes that are required of citizens in a liberal democracy; the attack on liberal arts education is, then, linked not just to the neoliberalization of the university, but to the neoliberalization of society more generally. Though this argument is quite common didn’t prevent it from striking me as odd. Perhaps this is because I grew up in England, where the language of “liberal arts” is not so common (and the education system from 16, if not earlier, is directed towards a level of specialization which is hard to square with the generality of liberal arts). More importantly, though, it seems to me that this way of thinking about the liberal arts is, for a supposed defense of a pre-neoliberal university, actually highly amenable to the neoliberalization of the university.
The problem is that it is, at bottom, a prudential justification of the liberal arts. Rather than defending the value of education itself, it proposes the utility of education to a particular sort of society, a liberal democracy built around an idea of a certain kind of engaged citizenry. But what happens when that sort of society no longer exists? The same structure of prudential argument can be maintained, with only minor alterations to the putative goals: now, rather than citizenship, we talk of “critical thinking” or “transferable skills.” In the absence of a viable liberal democracy of the sort which the liberal arts were supposedly preparing citizens for, this attempt to defend liberal arts education can’t really get off the ground; all it does is prepare the ground for the “pragmatic” move of “reformers,” eager to show their acceptance of the principle of liberal arts education, while modifying it in, they assure us, the only way in which it can be retained, which in practice means a neoliberal reorganization.
The interesting thing about neoliberalism is that it is so all-encompassing a political logic that it pushes us of necessity towards radicalism. Because neoliberalism puts utility maximization at the center of its construction of subjectivity, it is poised to capture any kind of means-end reasoning. The only way to defend education from marketization, then, is to maintain and defend its uselessness, to defend it from reduction to any external purpose.
15 thoughts on “Are the liberal arts free enough?”
This is so incredibly brilliant I almost can’t describe it.
The ultimate problem is that the liberal university (or liberal learning generally) is entirely determined by it’s prudential or functional role within the liberal project. (I’m using liberal to mean “social contract” modern philosophy). The liberal project’s political manifestation is the liberal democracy, a goal that the liberal project has insisted on being the highest goal imaginable for 350 or so years.
So, we have a testable empirical prediction from the liberal project: the liberal democracy will be the best possible regime. If that prediction is empirically disproved or even made dubious, then all of the liberal project collapses, with it the liberal university (and thus the liberal arts).
Now, we can debate whether that prediction had been empirically disproved or not. If we assume that it had been disproved or even made more dubious, then literally all of the liberal project must be reconsidered.
Part of the liberal project is it’s understanding of good versus bad. This is transformed in liberal economics’ understanding of “utility maximization” – the liberal projects’ sole way of understanding good and bad. That is, the liberal arts, when the political worth of the liberal political project is made dubious, MUST find a different understanding of good versus bad that is strong opposition to the liberal project as a whole. (It is not uselessness that we would be defending, but rather attacking utility maximization in favor of better understandings of usefulness).
Of course, that means a different role entirely for education and the liberal arts than is conceived of by the modern university. The true value of the liberal arts is now revealed as being the best way to undermine and overthrow a failed or dubious project (the neoliberal democracy). Or put more modestly, the true value of the liberal arts is to pursue wisdom simply (knowledge of what is truly good simply, rather than what is good for a liberal democracy which has wrongly been assumed to have been good), a goal which will be in the most dire opposition to existing political regimes.
Of course, that’s not something that should be explicitly mentioned to that neoliberal democracy. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to be so explicit as to directly say that truth – (the truth being the liberal democracy was always fated to eventually fail and turn into an oligarchy). Our actual work at the moment is to guide the Alcibiades that is coming so that the new regime he puts into place is as good a one as possible, rather than Alcibiades simply trashing all of Greece.
Can I recommend Dominic’s analysis of the education of the UK cabinet:
The defence from utility involves the hope that you can take an institution (and an area of study) that was for most of its history conceived and structured as training for the ruling class and turn it or its subject matter into a vehicle for resistance. The linking of the institution itself to “the pursuit of wisdom” is a bit like the Catholic Church claiming a monopoly on the pursuit of what is good while molesting small boys. The liberal arts university in all its symbolism functions for the liberal middle class as its church, the institution it really feels a hushed sense of sacredness about. And this sense of sacredness somehow prevents them from seeing that the neoliberals are as steeped in the liberal arts it is possible to be.
Also, don’t you think it would be easier for elected officials to stand up to bankers if they felt confident enough in their own knowledge of finance, instead of having no choice but to provide everything they ask for?
Thanks Gabe; I’ve been wondering how my take on this connects with Dominic’s. I guess my guiding thought is that means-end reasoning as such has been captured by neoliberalism, so that any alternative to neoliberalism has to be couched in terms of some kind of non-means-end reasoning, either uselessness, or, as burritoboy suggests, a usefulness that isn’t conceptualized in terms of utilitarianism.
I agree, also, that this wouldn’t be a passive form of knowledge, but, as Dominic says, would be the opposite, i.e., an explicitly partisan knowledge. This sounds contradictory; an engaged but also useless form of theory. I don’t think this is actually contradictory; rather, the limitation of political engagement to utilitarian reasoning is a symptom of neoliberalism. This might also provide the basis for a resistance to the technocracy that leads to the rule of bankers, but I don’t think I quite see how this would work yet. I’m concerned by a left which simply puts “our” banking experts up against capitalism’s banking experts, but, at the same time, I don’t want to say that it’s not important for the left to understand, in detail, the financial system.
Glad to have you aboard — very interesting post.
One very simple point that I would raise against those who claim that the liberal arts are essential for liberal democracy, etc., is that in the postwar era the US has had basically a continuously increasing share of the public who are college-educated, but meaningful democracy has decreased by any possible measure. The fact that this is never brought up probably reflects the a priori nature of the supposed link between the liberal arts and democracy.
Your last two sentences are just brilliant. Thanks for this.
One very simple point that I would raise against those who claim that the liberal arts are essential for liberal democracy, etc., is that in the postwar era the US has had basically a continuously increasing share of the public who are college-educated, but meaningful democracy has decreased by any possible measure.
It’s not as simple as that, thought. No one who makes a liberal arts—liberal-democratic society connection thinks that the connection depends on the material being taught, as if learning about Renaissance art were better preparation for being a citizen of a democracy than learning about transistors. The connection surely is rather supposed to pertain to how one learns, is taught, interacts with others in class, does the whole reading-charitably and giving-and-asking-for-reasons thing and all that good stuff. So if the growing number of college graduates owes substantially to courses in which none of that happens, then you may well have the matter of a liberal education (though I’d be skeptical even of that), but you sure haven’t been formed.
You get the same kind of eminently coöptable defenses that voyou complains of among specific liberal arts; lots of defenses of literature, for instance, locate some good or value associated with or stemming from the study or reading of literary works which is not itself literature (and which it would be hard to argue can only be had from such study, which would be a bulwark at least). So you end up with literature being valuable insofar as it leads to this other thing which is what we’re really after, meaning literature is in principle dispensable.
That last paragraph alone was worth the price of admission, thanks.
“The fact that this is never brought up probably reflects the a priori nature of the supposed link between the liberal arts and democracy.”
Absolutely. Here’s a concrete example of this:
Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon are all opponents of capitalism (in differing ways) and could be a powerful source (and perhaps the source) of resistance against it. But the liberal arts teaching in the neoliberal university never utilizes them in that way. In fact, the usual teaching in the neoliberal university is that nobody had ever had any economic theory whatsoever before Adam Smith.
What this means, however, is that the (old) liberal arts teaching was not really liberal (in the true sense) – it had too comfortable a relationship with the neoliberal regime and did not strenuously challenge it with the weapons it had available.
“The linking of the institution itself to “the pursuit of wisdom” is a bit like the Catholic Church claiming a monopoly on the pursuit of what is good while molesting small boys. ”
I would agree that a simple linking would be a similar claim as the Catholic Church analogy. And I would heartily agree that the current institution guides students away from wisdom, not towards it. To some extent, that’s the nature of institutions: no political regime can fund the true liberal arts knowingly – all regimes are flawed and the true liberal arts will create doubts about every regime.
Therefore, yes, I don’t really defend the liberal arts institutions as they exist today. Contrarily, I would argue that truly liberal learning is the best place for resistance – but that truly liberal learning looks radically different from our current institutions.
Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon are all opponents of capitalism (in differing ways) and could be a powerful source (and perhaps the source) of resistance against it. But the liberal arts teaching in the neoliberal university never utilizes them in that way.
Can you expand on this? I don’t really understand how this is an example of liberal arts education not supporting democratic citizenry.
“truly liberal learning is the best place for resistance”
The current campaign to defend the humanities (as institutions) in the UK I imagine doesn’t think they are fighting for the right to sit in philosophy tutorials with people like David Cameron.
As for the Greeks the high point of British colonialism coincided with the high point in studies of Greek philosophers in the original Greek at British universities. Look up Enoch Powell, scholar politician.
Having banking experts on the left is the essence of Marxism, surely. To act towards the rapture of the communist hypothesis, it might be more efficient to hand out free copies of Capitalist Realism (or equivalent) in workplaces.
If “the postwar era the US has had basically a continuously increasing share of the public who are college-educated” it might well be that we are progressing not too badly, even if there are (for all we know, temporary) issues on the higher end of the education system. The progress of the masses is not de facto less important than that of the elite.
“To act towards the rapture of the communist hypothesis, it might be more efficient to hand out free copies of Capitalist Realism (or equivalent) in workplaces.”
But what is the reading of Capitalist Realism? I have not read the book myself (something I will try to fix), but from the publisher’s description, it appears to be a work of liberal learning (or at least trying to be a work of liberal learning).
You are quite correct that neoliberalism restricted liberal learning into the neoliberal university, and that there will need to be many sites of resistance in the future – many (perhaps most) will be outside the current institutions. But mass distribution of Capitalist Realism would also be an educational institution as well – Gideon Bibles, etc.
But some of the sites of resistance will necessarily be inside current educational institutions or (in the future) things that are somewhat like current educational institutions – schools of some sort. Even our Mass Distribution of Capitalist Realism Foundation might be a school of sorts. The Foundation presumably won’t only distribute Capitalist Realism, but might also organize Capitalist Realism study groups, offer lectures and classes on Capitalist Realism, distribute other books, etc. The Foundation is very likely to, in time, partially be a school (of sorts).
Sure, our Foundation doesn’t look much like traditional university liberal arts training in the UK. But maybe it’s not as different as the initial glance, either.
“Can you expand on this? I don’t really understand how this is an example of liberal arts education not supporting democratic citizenry.”
I’ll try – let me know if my explanation makes sense.
1. We have to distinguish our terms. “Democratic” is doing too much work in your question. Liberal arts education HAS supported neoliberal citizenry, and most people today would say neoliberalism=democracy, so they would claim a neoliberal citizenry is also a democratic citizenry. We’re of course challenging that.
2. The materials that traditional liberal arts teaching utilizes offer radical challenges to any particular regime and to all regimes simply. That is, the materials come from an incredible range of different political stances and offer strong critiques of every type of regime.
3. What the (true) liberal learning does is (among other things) to permit the student to question the regimes they live under, but also to see what virtues the regime has (if any). Just as no regime is perfect (or even very good), most regimes are not completely bad either.
4. It is one function of the true liberal arts teacher to guide that process. Part of the expertise the teacher brings is to organize that process, part of which may be the study of texts.
5. The liberal arts academia allowed itself to be disarmed by accepting the assertion of economics academia that the subject had not existed before economics academia invented it (by Alfred Marshall, essentially). Thus, liberal arts academia essentially emasculated itself by ignoring (for example) Xenophon’s powerful economic thought, which could reclaim large areas of study for the liberal arts.
6. Because of this self-emasculation, the only economic thought currently (widely) available is modern economic thought. Naturally, there’s some variation within modern economic thought, but that variation isn’t actually that wide. So, for practical purposes, that self-emasculation has dramatically narrowed the economic debate, which has in particular constricted the opponents of capitalism. Which, in turn, means that the liberal arts to some extent undermined the full array of choices available for the demos to utilize. It’s true that’s probably a minor factor, but still a major failing of the liberal arts.
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