NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to write an article in a series of installments on my blog for the spring, digital, issue of North Dakota Quarterly dedicated to the Humanities in the Age of Austerity. I’m calling them, for fun, NDQuesday, and I hope this becomes a regular feature on my blog as I work with a remarkable group of people to figure out how to keep NDQ thriving in a new era of funding. 

For my contribution today,I am worried that my argument will be complex and will probably reveal the limits of how I understand both the world of ideas that are shaping our society and higher education and the way in which higher education works “on the ground.” My hope is that people feel free to offer my feedback on my work here. 

To start, I’m going to dive into the meat of my article, which explores the unusual way in which neoliberal ideas play out across state university campuses. I’ll do little to hide my indebtedness to Mark Blyth’s work on austerity, David Harvey’s on neoliberalism, and Christopher Newfield’s on higher education, but I’ll try to bring my own distinct perspective and experiences to the conversation. In particular, I want to focus on certain performative aspects of the neoliberal position that shape how universities present themselves and individual actors behave. In this area, I suspect you’ll see the influence of folks like Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities although I take my critique in a different direction.   

To start, I probably need to try to untangle the connection between austerity and neoliberalism at last in the context of higher education (and here I need to digest more fully the work of Fabricant and Brier).

For the purposes of my article, austerity is really short-hand for a larger neoliberal package of ideas that actively privileges the market as the dominant force in shaping society. It initially developed at a macro-economic scale in the immediate post-war period as a challenge to Keynesianism and as a critique of mid-century views of statist projects in both the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of Nazism. It became a cornerstone of Thatcher’s and Reagan’s re-imagining both of the national and then the global economy. In this context, neoliberal thinkers and politicians argued that state institutions were impediments to person economic (and even social) freedom which ultimately undermined the potential for innovation and entrepreneurship. The economic authority of the state expressed in the control over resources and the bureaucratized rule of regulation stifled individual creativity and competition while also  insulating certain sectors of the economy into complacency. These social attitudes offered a moral framework for an economic view that saw the flow of state funds into the economy as encouraging inflationary conditions which dampened markets, weakened the private sector, and impaired economic growth. Austerity represented a strategy to pull back the economic influence of the state in the economy, to forestall inflation, and to allow for markets and the private sector to produce growth. Whatever the economic merits of this approach (and recent work has cast significant doubts on whether austerity does stimulate growth), there is no doubt that these policies have weakened the social safety net created during the Great Depression, turned massive quantities of assets over to an increasingly wealthy super elite, and transformed the global political and economic landscape. My interest is largely in the social and political transformations wrought by neoliberalism. My article will look at three in particular: (1)  the belief that markets and competition represent individual freedom, (2) the success in market competition reflect both the personal and public good, and (3) that market competition produces efficiencies by undermining the complacency of publicly-funded entrenched interests. 

The impact of these three attitudes on higher education in the U.S. has been dramatic. This is partly because neoliberal faith in market competition shares certain parallels with the long-standing belief in intellectual and academic competition in academia. In recent times, however, the emphasis in neoliberal rhetoric on the moral good of market competition and equation of markets with freedom has converted this confidence in the meritocracy to the space of the market. Individuals within and outside of the academic, in the administration and in the trenches, have seen market forces as beneficial agents of change and as justification for whole-sale revisions in curricula and educational policies. These attitudes reflect what David Harvey has recognized as the hegemonic power of neoliberal thinking that makes it very hard for us to imagine alternative ways of doing things.

These forces played out in the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly in a number of intriguing and informative ways. As readers of this blog and NDQ know, the Quarterly lost its funding in 2016 amid a series of rather dramatic budget cuts at the state level. These budget cuts reflect both the changing economic fortunes of the state and, more directly, the price of oil, as well as a reluctance by legislators to raise taxes to fund public enterprises and services. For many in the legislature, the desire to keep the state friendly to business by cutting taxes and regulation (and allowing market forces to generate growth rather than legislative programs) coupled with a tendency to see public, higher education as too long insulated from market forces and therefore inefficient (by definition). Raising taxes too support state programs, then, would have made the state less friendly to business and limited the freedom of individuals to use their funds to pursue whatever education they desired. 

At UND, North Dakota Quarterly saw the direct impact of these cuts in large part because for previous few years, we had been urged to produce a “sustainable business model” for the journal. This overlooked, at least superficially, that the existing model for NDQ which combined funds from UND and the College of Arts and Sciences with income from subscriptions had been sustainable for over 60 years. Its lack of sustainability, at least in the rhetoric of our administrators, reflected an expectation that projects like NDQ should be sustainable with only private funds. In other words, sustainability was something that existed only in the marketplace of the private sector rather than as a shared commitment supported by public and private resources. 

The reasons for de-fundung NDQ, however, go beyond simple issues of fiscal austerity, of course. Our declining number of subscribers, questions about the impact of the publication on the broader UND community and mission, and perhaps even a lack of direction all contributed to a less than charitable viewing of the Quarterly. It is difficult, however, to avoid viewing these critique – offered both tacitly and explicitly – as valuations on the sustainability of the Quarterly in anything other than market terms. The intellectual or humanistic impact of the Quarterly was, as far as I know, never called into question.

Academic administrators have used a similar set of curious arguments to justify cuts to the humanities more generally. Declining enrollments, for example, demonstrate lack of market demand for particular subject and this justifies reduced resources to those programs. The reduction of resources almost always accelerate the decline in enrollments into the future. The justification for this, of course, is largely financial. The university has limited resources and need to support those programs that have the most students. 

At the same time, these arguments also coincide with a rhetorical position that see the arts and humanities at state universities, in particular, as luxuries. The critique of this position is well-know, so I’ll address it here only briefly. Attacks on the humanities and arts by politicians have tended to argue that they are not only useless degrees that produce students who are a burden on society, but also that the character of a humanities education is the deeply suspect hotbed of post-modernism, anti-nationalism, liberalism, and other nefarious positions that undermine the shared values of the community and social cohesion. The merging of moral judgements about the character of humanities program in higher education and the purported lack of viability of humanities graduates in the marketplace is consistent with the larger ideological project of contemporary neoliberalism.

It’s also not strictly speaking true. Humanities graduates tend to earn less than their peers in the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the short-term, but over time, earn as much and even more than graduates with more apparently practical degrees. Moreover, companies consistently demand more graduates with the qualifications that humanities graduates possess: the ability to read, to write, to think critically and morally, and to problem solve. Taking nothing away from graduates in other fields at the university, there is no real reason to see that humanities graduates are an less viable in the market-driven workforce than graduates in any other field. The issue appears to be largely a rhetorical one in which the usual line of causality is reversed. The moral economy of neoliberalism has tended to see failure in the market as a moral failing. In the case of the humanities, it sees the critique of the market and neoliberalism (even though the lines between neoliberalism and post-modernism are well-known among scholars) as a moral failing that makes them less likely to be successful in the private sector despite evidence to the contrary. 

As a result, cutting the humanities and focusing energy on the practical and STEM fields is seen as a way to make the university more competitive in the marketplace based on a kind of moral reasoning rather than practical data. That the humanities have seen declining numbers – in part as a result of this inversion of neoliberal logic – has become the evidence that students are “voting with their feet.” Defunding a project like North Dakota Quarterly, then, becomes an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to practical education and short-term workforce development as well as a rejection of the morally suspect fields of in the arts and humanities. The argument that NDQ did not develop a sustainable business model (i.e. a model that relies on the market for sustainability at least in large part) is both true and confirms the larger perspective that the humanities are not viable fields in the contemporary economy and do not deserve continued state funding.  

This is, of course, largely theater, but a particularly pernicious kind of theater (1) that reflects the internalization of certain aspect of neoliberalism among faculty and administrators (in a way that suggests Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony), (2) that confounds the efficient operation of a university (which confirms the argument that the public sector is intrinsically less efficient than the private sector), and (3) replaces the aspirations for a genuinely meritocratic kind of competition – a marketplace of ideas – with a crasser, less productive, but far more public, race to the bottom.

(Stay tuned for part 2 of this essay… but readers of this blog will know that it goes something like this or thisthisthis).

As always, provide feedback! I need to know just how wrong I am!

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