You’re likely familiar with the fashion title of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. But there’s also Harper’s that’s been published since 1850! It renders itself as a more inquisitive, literary based understanding of world and national news and “leisure” subjects. It’s the kind of glossy version magazine to loyalists of newspapers like The New York Times and shows Charlie Rose.
In the September 2015 issue, the cover article “The Neoliberal Arts“, with its sub-headline “How College Sold Its Soul…and Surrendered To The Market” is a thoroughly illustrated, researched and personal essay on the cultural demise and growing, literal businesses of American universities and colleges. For writer William Deresiewicz, the state of American education has been on his mind, as he’s also written the book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He argues that in the decades since, not just the “postwar explosion of state university systems (pg. 27)” beginning in the 1860s but also the 1960s, where colleges were massive, influential platforms for young people looking to evolve mentally and socially, higher education has lost itself in being no different in hustling for money and status than say corporate America, chain stores and Fortune 500s.
His revelation isn’t all that alienating. Many of us, not children of the post-9/11 era and adults concerned with the progression of education, have all hinted at publicly and in private conversations that college has changed. Qualified teachers are still being hired and a lot of students still genuinely want to be there. But with so many post-grads in debt and tuition rising at astronomical levels that even students from well-off families quadruple-check at the fees shamelessly staring back at them, college feels more like a business deal or negotiation plan with your wallet than an intellectual, open-minded haven for one to reset their moral compass.
According to Mic.com‘s report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average college tuition went up “553% since 1984.”
“Average tuition at a private university was $30,094 in the 2013–2014 school year, according to the College Board. If in the next 30 years tuition continues its climb, rising by another 553%, average private tuition would grow to an incredible $196,514.”
Deresiewicz blames the questionable wave of capitalism in your vintage Trapper Keeper on “neoliberalism.” In terms of education, neoliberalism is “an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is a price of a thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace-in Wordworth’s phrase, your getting and spending (pg. 26).” Maybe it’s overtly old school to think this kind of way today, but the core of a college’s worth used to be in shaping minds and exercising the energy to work hard towards critical thinking and originality. The money talk just feels out-of-place. Or at least (again) it used to be.
(Back in 2013, NBC online cited that at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, the American student body rose by 6%. In general, Canadian colleges housing Yankees went up 50% in the last ten years. And why? Simply because of affordability, even if a student was “out-of-state.”)
The author is both a writer and educator himself, so his observations are real and felt in his essay. Included points are how some his fellow teachers felt disheartened to motivate their students when their pupils are being told left and right that after college, becoming a millionaire or a CEO is key and every single of them from their 2,000+ graduating class are expected to become one (their worth is just that). From “The Neoliberal Arts”, some of the deans and chancellors featured would’ve been better off taking their dog eat dog mentality to their local financial district. In Deresiewicz’s eyes, the emotional ecosystem of America’s higher education is a disappointing study in ethics.
“There are of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual (pg. 30).”
“The Neoliberal Arts” is especially sensitive to the humanities, which have taking a media beating in recent years. The workforce has gotten better since the Great Recession, but after having become so alarmingly aggressive in competition and the always “practical” need for scientists and economists, students of English, theater and the arts are feeling more jipped than ever. Deresiewicz sadly couldn’t leave out the fact that the “percentage of students majoring in English has plummeted since the 1960s (pg. 26).” (Kind of makes you wonder how that one classmate of yours that majored in botany is doing).
Academy Award winner Robert DeNiro’s commencement speech at this year’s New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts made entertainment headlines when he rashly told an auditorium of students and their families and friends, after having finally earned their undergrad degrees, that: “You discovered a talent, developed an ambition, and recognized your passion. When you feel that you can’t fight it, you just go for it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense.”
“Yeah you’re f–ked. The good news is, that’s not a bad place to start.”
DeNiro was half-joking. And having Tisch on your resume will definitely get you noticed for interviews or at least a coveted call-back. But when ol’ Bobby Dee is telling our future artists that “they’re fucked” because they choose film over engineering…no one wants that kind of “reminder.” Deresiewicz would challenge the idea that no one would ever tell a post-grad, hungry like the wolf lawyer that they in the future are going to be screwed.
Further down the essay, Deresiewicz notes that: “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 fundamental change, a new organization of society. If there was ever a time that we needed young people to imagine a different world, that time is now (pg. 31).” By the time his article was pressed, during a Boston news telecast in September 2015, it was reported that many generic businesses and finance companies were desperate for millennials (“fresh, young, new voices”) to apply for opened jobs because in the next ten years to come, those currently employed at said cubicles would be looking to retire. These companies admittedly want a slew of fresh meat to arrive with even fresh(er) ideas. Figures.
In reading “The Neoliberal Arts”, it’s understandable that you may feel like a dialog dreamer, out-casted by your current analog surroundings. Deresiewicz’s essay is a relatable calling call for those that treasure their education, the practice of it, or uphold the belief that writers and painters are just as necessary to the development of life as biochemists. Deresiewicz speaks from the frustration of many that feel disenfranchised by the workplace and are appalled by how commercialized college and degrees have become. Going to college and a university are still rewarding opportunities and should be treated as such. But what happens when the thought of going to school has concave into another lost in the air touchstone of former American idealism? We’ve already loosened up on the American Dream. Can we not subject campuses to a Fahrenheit 451-like environment too? In 2013, the NY Times let it out in titling an education news story “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” (As if the news of less government funding for arts and crafts in elementary and middle schools was depressing enough. Someone cue Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance“).
“[Music] albums still matter. Like books, and Black lives, albums still matter. Tonight, and always.” –Prince, at the 2015 Grammy Awards
But Deresiewicz’s argument isn’t some idyllic take on how we should all sit under a tree and feel the motions instead of creating and doing cool shit and becoming competent players after life becomes less about textbooks and more about a steady paycheck (Again, though. That paycheck). He just pushes for a more balanced way of valuing of the array of studies and the return of appreciation those that prefer molding and challenging the arts than just aspiring the next generation to be Jordan Belfort.
Joel Hunter, a professor himself of fifteen years, wrote a response to “The Neoliberal Arts” on his blog Dr. Joel B. Hunter. He both agreed and disagreed with Deresiewicz in “Upon Further Review…” He found the Harper’s writer’s article necessary but occasionally too lenient in wanting a less systematically autocratic education. He explained:
“So as compelling as Deresiewicz’s opening illustration is, the conceit of an antithesis between higher education’s understanding of its mission 100 years ago and now doesn’t hold up once you look at a representative selection. Nevertheless, I agree with his observation that the raison d’être for institutions of higher education has significantly shifted, particularly in its previous focus on student formation and learning to…something else. An older aim, the moral education of college students, is, at most colleges and universities, absent, or at best, muted.”
Hunter comes from a space of which it may be better to adjust as best as one can to the new rules of education and jobs than lament the days of the hippie children. Different times call for different procedures, no? Maybe that in itself is why the Harper’s article exists. The rat race is more normalized than ever. And who wants to live life like a rat?
“The Neoliberal Arts” is an important read that will absolutely spark a conversation within yourself and others on the matter of education and the importance of the arts in 2015. After doing so, you may feel compel to ask, is it still worth it to exercise the mind artistically, or just prepare for it for the cruel world of survival. By 2020, will it be a problem that you choose to read The Canterbury Tales over the thick The 47 Laws of Power in school? To end with a passage from William Deresiewicz:
“Neoliberalism disarms us in another sense as well. For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today, and so much of the negative response to my suggestion that students ought to worry less about pursuing wealth and more about constructing a sense of purpose for themselves, presume that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options. That hey have to do what the market tells. A Princeton student literally made this argument to me: If the market is incentivizing me to go to Wall Street, he said, then who am I to argue? (pg. 32).”
Just call it, the dreamer’s disease. Who’s side are you on?