Higher education is in trouble. The Humanities, the Liberal Arts–more so. It’s been a rough year or so for colleges and universities throughout the United States. North Carolina was the bellwether, falling victim to an Ayn Rand-inspired hatchet job. More recently, the Republican clown car continues to disgorge governors who apparently believe that eviscerating their states’ educational systems is the surest path to the presidency. Louisiana‘s universities lost 80%–EIGHTY. PERCENT.–of their funding, rendering them public enterprises in name only, a blood sacrifice for Bobby Jindal’s single, measly, margin-of-error-prone percentage point in the national polls. Not to be outdone, the Scott Walker regime, after gorging on the still-bleeding corpse of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, savaged what used to be a crown jewel of public institutions of higher learning. Gone is shared governance, gone is tenure, gone is any meaningful semblance of the Wisconsin Idea–and gone is a massive chunk of funding as well. In the midst of this carnage, we hear talk about “efficiencies,” and programs that should “guarantee graduates a good job”; apparatchiks trot out metrics that trace average career earnings, and bright-eyed legislative aides who majored in pre-law and Milton Friedman pooh-pooh programs that don’t lead to some sort of immediate “deliverable” or “job creation.”
For those of us who are in, or who care about, the Humanities and Liberal Arts in general, this intensifying worship of salary metrics and glorification of pre-professional programs above all else is both depressingly familiar and urgently dangerous. We try to argue back at the critics–we point out, for example, that Humanities graduates actually do quite well in average career earnings when compared with their “more marketable” peers. But this just plays into the hands of neoliberals who believe that, unless there’s a quantifiable and commodifiable outcome attached to it, it ain’t worth doing. The same folks who are bringing you Greek-style austerity are the ones trying to make higher education “efficient” and “flexible.” For this reason, we can’t defend the humanities as a greater good by holding them to the same narrow standard of “earning power” that its critics do–even if we end up looking OK in the process.
I’m so invested in this debate because it goes way beyond simply being a History Professor and Faculty Developer who cares about this stuff professionally. It echoes in the numerous stories that I, or any of my colleagues anywhere in higher ed, can point to where the Liberal Arts have changed a student’s life. A particular novel awakens the intellect of a first-generation minority student, building their academic confidence and creating a foundation for success. A student failing math makes a connection in their history class between classical architecture and the mathematical precision that underlays it, and then sees both subjects in a new light. You can’t scratch a college faculty member without bringing at least a handful of these stories to the surface. The stories are powerful because they render the abstract tangible; they put a name and a face behind such broad phrases as “lifelong learning” and “a true liberal arts education.” But these don’t matter to the neoliberal forces arrayed against the Liberal Arts, because they’re just stories. They’re not a system. They’re feel-good diversions from the “real work” of higher education, which is to prepare the next generation of mid-level economic functionaries for the late capitalist landscape.
For me, that is a soul-crushing proposition. It must be resisted.
We’ve blundered into creating a system closely resembling that which produced the legions of mid-level Soviet bureaucrats a half-century ago: excellent technical training coupled with a stunning lack of nuance and critical inquiry. It’s in this kind of milieu where bludgeoning a people with forced economic austerity appears as a positive good, and where the dogma of economic systems is valued over people’s lives. It’s that mindset that tells us that trickle-down economics works, despite what history and your lying eyes tell you. Return for shareholders is more important than infrastructure or social overhead capital. Privatization brings profit, the long-term consequences be damned. Your warm and fuzzy student stories don’t matter if that student doesn’t maximize dividends, dammit.
Worse, in trying to engage those arguments, those us defending the Liberal Arts have surrendered the terms of debate. We meet an insistence on “measurables” with attempts at our own pro-humanities metrics, rather than reject the way the question itself been framed. We cannot vindicate the value of what we do with salary averages. Moreover, we fail to point out the Janus-faced character of this country’s higher education discourse: political and economic elites extol the virtues of education in the abstract, but their concrete actions betray a murderous desire to quash education’s chief virtues. “Everyone should be able to afford college,” they say, but then turn around and declare that colleges are broken and don’t deserve our respect. They embrace Abraham Lincoln–the self-made man–and Martin Luther King, Jr.–the peacemaker–as American archetypes. But Lincoln educated himself with the Columbian Orator and works of literature and political thought, not with a Human Resources Management textbook. King had a Ph.D. in theology, and his Letter from a Birmingham Jail abounds with classical allusions; he didn’t aspire to be a Job Creator.
It’s time to reclaim our turf in this struggle. We cannot win an argument that relies on a set of neoliberal-inspired criteria to judge its merits. We have to become activists in the broadest sense of the term. We must advocate for a just vision of higher education, grounded firmly in the liberal-arts tradition, with the constituency that matters the most: OUR STUDENTS. What does this mean in practice? It means we must teach all of our students well all of the time, not just the ones in our upper-level seminars or our majors or the ones who really like us. This means professional development and the scholarship of teaching and learning must be invited in from the back porch and placed in the front parlor when it comes to the evaluation of, and rewards for, service and scholarship. We must support, honor, and show professional courtesy and justice to our adjunct colleagues. They are us, and we are them. To render this community an inferior caste in our institutions is ethically bankrupt as well as suicidal. They are on the front lines of working with the general-education and first/second-year students–who are, remember, our target audience. By living out the example of a true academic community, and by advocating for others to do the same, we pass on a powerful lesson to our students. If we mean what we say about educating the next generation of leaders–and I believe we do–then this is how we win the long game.
What about the short game? Will this activism-of-practice bring back tenure Wisconsin’s tenure or LSU’s funding? No, it probably won’t–yet. But I would argue that the efforts of the faculty in the UW system, as they’ve opposed every step of the governor and legislature’s dismantling of their institutional ideals, have given us a model from which we might benefit. How much have prominent voices from that community, such as Chuck Rybak and Sara Goldrick-Rab, changed public perception in the state (beyond the gerrymandered legislature) by their vocal dissent? How has their mobilization–and the mobilization of the UW community of past and present students–altered the climate moving forward? We’ll start to see the answers to this soon enough, I think, but there are lessons already apparent: a threat to some of us is a threat to all of us. R-1s, second- and third-tiers, SLACs, church-affiliated schools, community colleges–all of us confront enemies motivated by a similar set of ideals. Only by deploying our collective abilities can we meet them squarely. In turn, that deployment can only occur if those of us with tenure use that privilege to create space and amplification for our contingent colleagues’ voices. We succeed only by being actively present in the communities of students and colleagues in which we work. I’m more convinced than ever that this is where the main chance lies in our struggle.