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Fr. 678

October 1, 2015

In a recent article at Harper’s, “The Neoliberal Arts”, William Deresiewicz attempts to account for the various ways in which neoliberal assumptions have introduced themselves into American higher education with the aim of restructuring the values prized by a liberal education. In the concluding paragraphs, he isolates three assumptions which have played just such a restructuring role: leadership, service and creativity.

These notions appear rather innocuous at first glance, and the author is willing to concede as much. Wherefore their very insidiousness:

So what’s so bad about leadership, service, and creativity? What’s bad about them is that, as they’re understood on campus and beyond, they are all encased in neoliberal assumptions. Neoliberalism, which dovetails perfectly with meritocracy, has generated a caste system […]

Indeed, this caste system is so thoroughgoing as to appear the natural way of things, the inevitable order of being. This owes to the manner in which these assumptions have entrenched themselves in the past half-century of policies and reforms at all levels of government. Deresiewicz illustrates this by tracing the connection between broader trends in American society and the consolidation of neoliberal norms in the nation’s universities.

Leadership, as inculcated by institutions amounts to the following:

There are leaders, and then there is everyone else: the led, presumably — the followers, the little people. Leaders get things done; leaders take command. When colleges promise to make their students leaders, they’re telling them they’re going to be in charge.

Service undergoes a similar transformation at the hands of neoliberal norms and assumptions:

“Service” is what the winners engage in when they find themselves in a benevolent mood. Call it Clintonism, by analogy with Reaganism. Bill Clinton not only ratified the neoliberal consensus as president, he has extended its logic as a former president. Reaganism means the affluent have all the money, as well as all the power. Clintonism means they use their money and power, or a bit of it, to help the less fortunate — because the less fortunate (i.e., the losers) can’t help themselves.

Creativity is no more safe from the work of restructuring carried out in the nation’s institutions:

It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques — “solutions,” which imply that you already know the problem. “Creativity” means design thinking, in the terms articulated by the writer Amy Whitaker, not art thinking: getting from A to a predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

It is simple enough to follow the semantic shift in terms. Leadership previously connoted something closer to “autonomy” or the idea that all could (be brought to) to exercise some measure of independence; neoliberalism has made of it something rather more inborn, the inherent property of some (a ruling class) as opposed to others (the ruled). The notion of service stood for an engagement with one’s community and the common good, the duty of all; it has since been replaced by the neoliberal notion wherein only certain, favored by the system, are capable and dutybound to help the community. Finally, creativity coincided with that ability to develop a progression of thought from its starting point to the end that most seemed to follow from it; in its place, neoliberalism has erected a manner of thinking in which beginning and end are fixed from the outset and creator need only find the most efficient input.


For the author, these points get at the true problem at the root of society’s ongoing neoliberalization: the impossibility to conceive of another world:

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 than fundamental change, a new organization of society.

This incapacity for alterity stems from the logic of reproduction inherent in neoliberalism. In promoting the need for market solutions in all fields, neoliberalism finishes by restructuring those fields, once outside of its prerogative, in its own terms and according to its own logic. So it is that “internal goods”, as used by MacIntyre and Stout, are replaced by “external goods”. In other words, fields of which the ends are fixed by the field itself, the means chosen in accordance with those end, and the whole structured by this intrinsic logic, undergo a radical transformation. Now, those same fields find their ends fixed by considerations external to the field, the means chosen in accordance with external ends, and the whole structured by an instrumental logic from another domain entirely. In this way, the good prized by education yield to goods such as average earning potential, suitability for the market, and professionalization.

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