Excellent piece about the “commodification” of higher education

In “How college sold its soul to the market”, the estimable eloquently describes my own thoughts about the spiral of higher education toward becoming a servant of financial economies instead of a place where we learn to be thoughtful, analytical, useful citizens in our societies.

This is one of the many  key points for me: “This is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we have made, driven by an ideology that we have allowed to impose itself upon us.”

Because this essay is so awesome, I’m going to post a bunch more quotes I thought were particularly great after the break.In speaking of his college’s new, buzzword-intensive motto:


…except for integrity (“…presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar ‘character,’ which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating”),Deresiewicz says,

The text is not the statement of an individual; it is the emanation of a bureaucracy. In this case, a literally anonymous bureaucracy: no one could tell me when this version of the institution’s mission statement was formulated, or by whom… [The words] had just appeared, as if enunciated by the zeitgeist.

But the most important thing to note… is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning… College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.

Perhaps the main thesis:

The purpose of education in a neoliberal age is to produce producers.

College, [David Brooks] 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. Even the cognitive purpose, which one would think should be the center of a college education, is tolerated only insofar as it contributes to the commercial.

About the STEM-uber-alles fad (after noting that only 2.5% of students get degrees in math or the physical sciences):

Everybody talks about the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — but no one’s really interested in science, and no one’s really interested in math: interested in funding them, interested in having their kids or their constituents pursue careers in them. That leaves technology and engineering, which means (since the second is a subset of the first) it leaves technology.

We have sold our youth to our adult financial ambitions:

The modern age… invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood… of unique privileges and obligations… youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it… As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

… Now we have youth as it was imagined by… neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world… Neoliberalism believes that we have reached the end of history… free-market capitalism that will go on replicating itself forever. The historical mission of youth is no longer desirable or even conceivable. The world is not going to change, so we don’t need young people to imagine how it might.

All we need [youth] to do [according to Rothman] is to run faster and faster, so that by the time they finish college, they can make the leap into the rat race. Youth, now, is nothing more than a preliminary form of adulthood, and the quiet desperation of middle age has been imported backward into adolescence.

Professors have seen a steady shift in student motivation, and in administrative support for the historical missions of higher education:

Students will come to your office… to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

They certainly cannot count on much support from their administrations. Now that the customer-service mentality has conquered academia, colleges are falling all over themselves to give their students what they think they think they want. Which means that administrators are trying to retrofit an institution that was designed to teach analytic skills — and, not incidentally, to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on the big questions — for an age that wants a very different set of abilities.

And hey, liberals, you don’t get off so easy, either:

So what’s so bad about leadership, service, and creativity? …they are all encased in neoliberal assumptions… “winners and losers,” “makers and takers,” “the best and the brightest,” the whole gospel of Ayn Rand and her Übermenschen… When colleges promise to make their students leaders, they’re telling them they’re going to be in charge.

“Service” is what the winners engage in when they find themselves in a benevolent mood. Call it Clintonism… 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… “Creativity” means… getting from A to a predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

And our new college structure is not helping us do what our societies need to do, to save themselves and the world:

Leadership, service, and creativity do not seek fundamental change (remember, fundamental change is out in neoliberalism); they seek technological or technocratic change within a static social framework, within a market framework. Which is really too bad, because the biggest challenges we face — climate change, resource depletion, the disappearance of work in the face of automation — will require nothing less than fundamental change, a new organization of society. If there was ever a time that we needed young people to imag ine a different world, that time is now.

Finally, the author notes that there is positive change happening, though that might come at the expense of universities that refuse to abandon unsustainable neoliberal market ideals:

Already, improbably, we have begun to make that move: in the president’s call in January for free community college, [the Democrat-generated plan] to enable students to graduate from college without debt, in [Bernie Sanders’ proposal] for a tax on Wall Street transactions that would make four-year public institutions free for all. [Increased national priority for the issue of] 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… 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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