Author's Roundtable 2: Response from Antoinette Burton

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
The Neoliberal Arts Education: Some Points of Refusal

Written by Antoinette Burton (History)

Before I begin I want to remark on how many people have been in contact with me over email about this panel, sending viewing material and references of all kinds.

The most common item I have received is segments of the “Save the University” forum staged at Berkeley before the September walkout. It can be found on You Tube, and I recommend especially the speeches by Wendy Brown and Ananya Roy. Much of what I say tonight echoes their words, their diagnoses and above all, their refusals of what Roy calls the inevitability of the demise of the public university.

More proximately, I’m grateful to Frank Donoghue’s book, The Last Professors, even while it was very, very hard to read. Not only have we been living through much of what he describes, but we have been reading about the fact that we have been living through what he describes for a long time as well.

The collective wisdom of the argument is (and I paraphrase):
    “The language of economic management is the dominant discourse in the University”
    “Consumerism is the model for curriculum building and program elimination”
    “Efficiency is the watchword, in knowledge production as in administrative speak”
    “Faculty and especially humanists have had their heads in the sand about this for decades”
    and, therefore, “the humanities are doomed to disappearance.”

These are ideas to be found not only in The Last Professors, but in the late great Bill Readings’ 1996 book The University in Ruins and in John Guillory’s 1993 Cultural Capital, both of which Frank cites.

Readings’ book focused more than Donoghue’s does on the disappearance of the liberal subject of humanism, that every-person who was the original aspirational object of modern university education. In fact, that every-person began as the rights bearing elite white straight Christian male of the Enlightenment paradigm, and our students are not by any means all that now, if they ever were and even if they want to be. Whatever we might say about how the university has “adapted” to demographic change, its social, economic and political ramifications have not been fully countenanced. “Diversity” is cordoned off in ethnic and gender/women’s studies programs that compete asymmetrically for resources and struggle to both build their own curricula and institutional capital and to transform the traditional disciplines themselves. There are some success stories, and important ones, but mainly there is a lot of pious talk about diversity – so that we have a thriving and innovative American Indian Studies program but we cannot, finally, get rid of the Chief. And if tuition and fees – those revenue generating pathways to the privatization of the public university – if tuition and fees continue to rise, people of color and working class students will be disproportionately affected. They will effectively be closed out of an institution where social hierarchies have arguably been re-made (pace Roy) and cultural hierarchies have been challenged for a quarter of a century – not perfectly, not ideally, but remade and challenged nonetheless.

If not diversity, what about globalization, that most prized project of the neoliberal institution? Despite the corporatized rhetoric about this as well, the university is not equipping its students in curricular terms to face a truly global or multicultural world – in part because it sees ethnic studies and area studies as incommensurate, and race and gender and class analysis especially as distinctive from “international” studies. There is so much to be said about this, but let me focus for now on how the student “market,” we are told, should be geared toward curricula that solve real world problems – sustainability, health, energy, global warming. But that’s a very particular market slice, fueled by a specific moment in the long and possibly stuttering history of corporate capitalism.

What we need, I submit, are courses on and programmatic attention to global histories of poverty, the ethnography of the global prison industrial complex, the literatures of global social movements, the sociology of global violence and war, the political economy of underdevelopment world-wide – in all their raced, gendered, and classed dimensions, bolstered by cutting edge research that starts with a critique of global power rather than with a not-so-hidden desire to be incorporated in it by reaping its benefits and disappearing its real, material inequities. Heck, I’d settle for a short, simple multi-disciplinary course pitched at all LAS first year students on cultures of capitalism, if only so we could devote a few sessions of our undergraduates’ general education to an informed understanding of what socialism, actually is, what redistributive justice actually looks like and why we need it. We need courses on the globalized phenomenon of neoliberalism in the university, from Urbana to Cape Town, not least so we can understand the accelerating advance of labor regimes that impact adjuncts and our own graduate students – so that our undergraduates can, in other words, fully understand why the GEO has voted an intent to strike.

Though they are touted as the new frontiers of research and thinking, and money is constantly being thrown at them so that they can give our students the tools they need for the so-called real world, I submit that sustainability and public health and digital technology are, arguably, subsets of the questions I mentioned above – capital, poverty, war and violence, uneven development – rather than the superstructural drivers of the new socio-economic order we are continually told they are. As articulations of a global and globalizing neoliberal agenda, sustainability and digital technology – I take these as random and nonspecific examples - need to be positioned in critical, dialectic and continuous relationship to the material conditions that produce them as the apparently exclusively desirable commodities in the curricular market place. At the very least they need to be arrayed alongside research and teaching that insist on longstanding histories of environmental racism, the yawning chasm of the digital divide and the persistence of famine and war of so-called failed states around the world. And they need to ask, of course, why the post-Katrina US is not counted in that category.

In the time I have left I want to continue my focus on the risible fictions of free market logic to which we are relentlessly subject at this particular moment. We must be market driven, market responsive, market anticipatory – this is what we are told over and over and with increasing desperation lately. And we just have to deal with it. Student demand is like consumer demand, we are told; it has to be fed, or else they will take their bodies and their dollars away. And humanists are especially at risk because, in the words of one of my colleagues recently, we persist in teaching a 19th century curriculum (the specific target was classics) that we need to abandon because it’s outmoded and effectively useless in today’s world.

We as educators respond to the market call as if the market really is this invisible hand, moving toward everyone’s self interest, or worse, as if that individual self-interest really adds up to a common good. Are we serious? Are we really prepared to let this interpretation stand, discipline, and govern us? Do we know no history, no scholarship of the last 25 years, and more to the point, have we not been paying attention to the real world since the end of Lehman? Forget Lehman - remember Enron? When where and under what conditions, Adrienne Rich might ask, has a corporate model ever realized its own self-stated goal, guaranteed long-term profit for its investors? When? Forget Enron, think about Global Campus, right in our back yard. I must stop here and refer you to Ananya Roy’s case against the argument that virtual campuses democratize higher education and reach underrepresented communities. She calls this the formula for a “subprime education,” modeled on the subprime lending practices of rapacious bankers and speculators that helped to produce the current crises; she calls it “segmented inclusion” that comes at a huge price. I urge you again to watch her analysis on the Save the University You Tube site.

Meanwhile, when administrators and colleagues tell us we need to be responsive to student need we need to tell them, actually, faculty need to be more involved in driving that need. Corporations (if that is our touchstone) shape market taste all the time. Why aren’t we fighting to do this, to claim our professional expertise and demand more of a role in molding how it impacts the student “product”? Otherwise students could teach themselves. We know that many people, both in and outside the academy, think that students can do that in the humanities, that they are autodidacts when it comes to literature and art, but certainly not in engineering. And of course they think that because these humanistic subjects are thought to be simply entertainment, with no redeeming socioeconomic value, let alone scholarly dimension. It's simply not true. Students need us all as much as we need them.

Please let me say, I don’t intend this hubristically. I aim to be a practitioner of feminist pedagogy, I am a lover of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I believe in the Socratic method (if not in its pure form). But I also think that learning happens through teaching, which is a dialectic, reciprocal process and, however you slice it, is also a relationship of power. We as educators have power here and we need to use it now – ethically, responsibly, and with intellectual purpose, but we need to use it nonetheless. If we don't strive to shape student needs in terms of subject – demonstrating to them why breadth and depth are valuable, why really knowing a subject is hard, damn hard, but also life changing and even, yes, even concretely useful in the world - then a truly critically engaged, multi-dimensional liberal arts education will only be possible outside the publics. And I want more for students who come to a state university like ours than a vocational pathway. I think many people here do too.

These feel like questions well beyond our ken as faculty at Illinois but I think we can and should have the conversations and lead at this moment from a set of shared, or at least struggled-over, convictions about the content as well as the political economy of the curriculum. This is to say nothing of how curriculum changes will impact research. People will tell you, as I have heard, it’s too late for that. We need to decide what core mission is and make hard decisions about what to scale back on and eliminate. But if “core mission” is simply “research and teaching,” that’s not a guide to what we value and should be willing to defend. It’s a place-holder and we need to fill out its meanings with specific intellectual and ethical commitments as to what we think matters in a liberal arts education.

I fear, at the tender age of 48, being considered on the wrong side of the apparently inevitable paradigm shift toward the instrumentalization of all coursework and research to the solving of what are deemed the most important contemporary problems. Yet with my colleagues in the UC system I refuse the inevitability of this – and I especially refuse it in the name of economic necessity when administrative positions and salaries grow exponentially and those who do the real work on the ground – TAs, administrative assistants, janitors and electricians and lab techs – struggle to make ends meet and live in constant fear of losing their barely living wage jobs. (As Roy asks, what have they been managing? And if outcomes assessment is the new regime, why aren’t they being fired for having failed to produce winning fiscal outcomes?) We need spaces outside this logic of instrumentalization and management and all the values it implies. We need spaces of creativity and critique. And the university is one of the few places that still has the capacity to preserve those, not as spaces of privilege but of absolute necessity for a thriving civic society, for a pluralistic democratic humanism. Should there not be planning for spaces outside market forces in the landscape of the 21st century public university? Can we imagine no place in its architecture that serves as a refuge from the exigencies of capital, if only to see what that looks like and remind ourselves that we have the capacity to will such things into existence and sustain them? The alternative is survival of the fittest and silos of hegemons – an unfortunate mixture of metaphors but apt, perhaps, for a Midwest land grant institution.

Again, we hear all the time that the moment for this model is gone. It is only gone if we let it be. Will we at Illinois have the courage and energy and conviction and, yes, passion – a very unfashionable word in the age of principled, disinterested pragmatism - to mobilize for the sake of these things? I think we should be modeling our own creative offensive around what constitutes a liberal arts education for the 21st century in ways that are not just reactive, despite how intense the fiscal crisis is, and speak to what we think our fields can do for the student who is, for better or worse, a global citizen coming to a university to be fitted for “useful” work in the world - because the research and the teaching that go on here enable that robustness of mind and posture, that rigor and vigor required to navigate the now. I sit on a lot of committees that have been constituted because of this crisis; none of them appears to be the place to do this work. But shouldn't it be happening somewhere? And don’t we as humanists, as faculty, need to be making it happen? if we don’t, I can tell you, no one will.

I suspect there are people thinking things like this to themselves but they think that the train has already left the station, or that their jobs are in danger, or that the forces arrayed against us are too enormous to fight, or that the institutional debt is too huge to combat with a creative offensive at this moment. All of these things are more or less true. History is cruel, but it cannot paralyze us. I don't want modern/romance languages – I take these as random and nonspecific examples as well - to become just service/teaching units with no majors. If this is already the case, we need – we all need - to work harder to draw students to them. That’s right. Historians need to stand up for languages; chemists need to stand up for history; sociologists need to stand up for classics. And if the article in last week’s New York Times is anything to go by, we all need to stand up for Political Science as well. We need continually to remind ourselves why this is so. We need to have conversations about why our students need the insights from all literatures, histories, cultures to make their way through a chemistry major; and why they need math to become a lawyer, a social worker, small business person, a union leader. And why the global is not the only category, or that when we see the global we see it from North America not from francophone Africa, and that impacts how we see it. This is, to cite Rich again, “the atlas of the difficult world” that we have the capacity to make visible in the public university. Some courses we teach will be directly relevant to this; some wont; and we need both. Some courses have payoff today; some repay years from now in ways that can’t be captured by the accelerated speed valued by corporate capitalism, which is inimical to deep, deliberative study as a precondition to action in the world.

People who do good and great things in the world – as we hope our students can and will do - need inspiration as well as technical knowledge; they need the discipline of learning another language and the skill to recognize in "unfamiliar" terrain like the classics both timeless and historically specific trends and ideas and patterns. They need to encounter worlds they didn't know existed, to be knocked off their feet, to have their realities queered, to find their place anew - or not - because that's what the university has the potential to offer, against all odds. And we as humanists need time and money for research support, to make the new discovery, to develop the contrarian argument, to critique the paradigm shift and to bring all that directly back into the classroom. Innovation is great; sure, it’s the American way. But we also need people to study innovation, its design genius, its aesthetic beauty, its consequences for actual people, its payoffs and its violences – and from my point of view, especially its histories. This is what a critically engaged, flexible, adaptive but idea-driven liberal arts education has the power to offer all those who are lucky enough to have access to it. If we don't believe this, why are we here? I believe this, and not just to save my own job or to reproduce myself in undergraduates and graduate students. I believe it because I have seen the transformative power of the liberal arts at work – not always immediately, not always commodifiably, but materially nonetheless. And I insist on it now as it becomes the vanishing point of our time, when as an embodied principle it is being subjected to a form of reckless, panic-driven and market-oriented radical doubt unprecedented in the history of the university itself.

A big university like Illinois is increasingly run not by deans or associate deans but by auditors and Human Resource personnel – people who have no clue about what those who research and teach actually do or how students learn. They are interested mainly in policing a bottom line that cannot compute the daily realities of the true university business: the education of students and the production of new knowledge. There are many candidates for the two cultures thesis beyond its original humanist/ scientist binary, and educators versus HR is the most structurally powerful one, never more so when state revenues are in free fall. It’s tempting to digress into an analysis of the fiscal crisis as overblown - as a pretext for sinister economies, as an indictment of failed leadership and self-serving bureaucratic make-work, as exemplary of managerial capitalism in action - and I hope folks will take these questions up in discussion.

Meanwhile, I've said more than I intended. My remarks grow out of conversations I have been having with colleagues all over the campus in the last year, including with our brave and hardworking dean, who is here tonight – conversations carried on at various decibels, since for better or worse I am known to get agitated and raise my voice: something, it has been hinted to me, which is unbecoming. I refuse that too; I am not interested in that kind of becoming. What I do not refuse is the viability of my conviction that a liberal arts education is not a consumable good but a social good, even a durable good - an urgently necessary vehicle for intellectual, political, social and economic transformations in ways we may begin to grasp now but also have yet to imagine in their most expansive form. We need all the resources of the public university precisely to determine how to move forward.


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Chantal said...

Insightful, brilliant, incisive, and merciless. Thank you, Antoinette.

Harriet Murav said...

A year or two ago, some humanists and artists from our campus had this to say about the role of the arts and humanities:

The arts and humanities make available a broad array of comparative, historical, critical, and creative approaches to the exploration of the meanings and values of human endeavors. Research in the arts and humanities leads to new knowledge about such topics as human communities, forms of thought, beliefs, the emotions, the mind, modes of expression. Work in this area produces new methods of critical reflections, new modes and media of expression, and new objects of study.

Increasingly rapid changes in our global, interdependent, and technologically complex world pose challenges and create opportunities to which humanists and artists are well-positioned to respond: such changes necessitate the transmission and reinterpretation of cultural traditions, and call for an ever expanding, interdisciplinary vision of fundamental knowledge.

The arts and humanities train students in critical literacy: the capacity to evaluate information critically, to read beyond the surface of any statement, to see what is most salient in a complex issue or text, and to reflect on their own capacities for knowledge. Critical literacy, like literacy in math and science, is a crucial skill for all participants in a democracy. Critically literate citizens require basic knowledge in art, literature, histories, cultures, and languages of the world. Through their attention to the histories, meanings, and values of human cultures, the arts and humanities bring students and the public into contact with difference, an encounter that can be both enriching and disruptive. The arts and humanities help us learn from and reflect on the dangerous tensions and creative possibilities that accompany cultural difference.

The arts and humanities offer students an opportunity to experience methods of inquiry, problem-solving, and discovery that are frequently different from those practiced in the realms of science and technology; methods that might be visual, performative, non-verbal, non-linear, or even intuitive. Yet these modes of research, synthesis, and expression can often yield results that are surprising, innovative, and powerful. These creative skills and methodologies have application across the full range of the professional practices, intellectual pursuits, and personal lives of tomorrow’s citizens and leaders.