NDQuesday: Humanities in the Age of Austerity, Part 4

Three weeks ago,  I started writing my contribution to the North Dakota Quarterly special issue dedicated to Humanities in the Age of Austerity. If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it hereyou can find the second part here, and the third part here

The last section established that the university as billboard extends from celebrating the success of students and faculty to demonstrating that this success represents the latest in market-hardened educational and research efficiency. The projection of certain message to stakeholders outside the university likely makes sense, particularly in an era of increasingly jaundiced views of the role of the state in the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, projecting the idea of the university as billboard internally at the university has had created challenges. The most obvious is the tendency to promote the easily measured standards of efficiency (i.e. enrollment, income, dollars) at the expense of the more complicated outputs of learning and discovery. After all, knowledge production is messy, and enrollment and income statistics are tidy.

The penultimate section of this essay is by far the roughest in terms of ideas and execution. I’m keen to read any feedback you are willing to offer in this:

The goals of this change in public higher education are complex and, I’d contend, not fully understood even by its advocated. If we assume that spread of neoliberal attitudes has more to do with a kind of deep-seated, Gramscian hegemony than a series of compelling arguments, then it is hardly surprising to find that assumptions of (in)efficiency drive policy more than interests in outcomes. At the same time, the decline in resources of the humanities both on UND’s campus and national and the defunding of long-standing projects like North Dakota Quarterly represent more than just public relations gambits designed to make higher education look lean and market-savvy.

The humanities have always served an important role in developing the leadership class in the United States, and as a result, elites have always sought ways of negotiating access to humanities education. During periods of economic growth and social and political change like the late 1960s, humanities education expanded to train a new generation of leaders in a tumultuous time. After a decline in the 1970s, the number of humanities majors tended to stabilize at around 10% despite some fluctuations and the continued expansion of higher education. Without dwelling too long on the numbers, throughout the 20th century, the study the humanities has long stood as one of the ways for individuals to enter the leadership class in the U.S. and as higher education has expanded, especially in the second-half to the 20th century, access to an education in the humanities expanded as well. Efforts to limit access to humanities education manifests itself in the competition between universities and colleges as historically elite schools have tended to support broadly liberal arts curriculum as a hallmark of their elite status. At the same time, schools looking to ascend the rankings have had to balance the desire to imitate the schools at the top of the higher education pyramid with the need to cultivate stakeholders through billboard-style claims to their efficiency and immediate economic benefit to their communities and students. As a result, at places like the University of North Dakota has been a push-pull of support for the humanities as both a key aspect of democratic higher education and a wasteful extravagance best left to more well-heeled universities designed to produce the next generation of elite leaders. This debate between the need for a robust and expansive humanities education at UND and the need to focus on workforce development and immediate local needs has existed since the early days of the university. The current version of this debate grounded in neoliberal attitudes toward the function of the state and the goal of education, however, has transformed the conversation. If throughout most of the 20th century, a liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the humanities was a hallmark of the leadership class, in the 21st century, the political elite have come to question this very formula. Talk of preparing leaders while endorsing approaches to higher education that shift resources from the humanities to other fields, suggests a significant change in priorities. [It may be that I haven’t made this argument very well.]

More importantly and nefarious, this shift in the basic expectations for the functioning of higher education presupposes an outcome. As the de-emphasis on the humanities has served to limit access to the leadership class by shifting resources elsewhere under the guise of efficiency and competition, it has also served to reify the existing social order as the product of similar forces. In other words, by privileging competition in the present, the current state of affairs including political leadership, disciplinary priorities, and social order, is presented as the outcome of similar competition and similar ground rules. Part of the hegemonic character of neoliberalism is that it presents itself as a historical reality rather than a set of constructed expectation in the present. 

Whatever the longterm goals for higher education, the billboard constructed by current leadership is not only an argument for how much more efficient a university can become, but also for their own position of authority. Diminishing the role of the humanities, then, becomes not just a result of a practice, but the natural result of competition which has forged the current leadership as well as their ideas. While this might represent a descent through this essay into position of pure cynicism, the consistency of the rhetoric both on campus and in the larger public sphere hints otherwise. The ultimate goal of neoliberal attitudes is not to make the public sphere more efficient, but to fortify the position of private capital in society.

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