Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Are the liberal arts free enough?

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.