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Fr. 679

October 2, 2015


Again, the article strikes a chord with Stout’s call for discourse, practices, traditions and virtues which act as a counterweight to just such the rest. The author point out:

We have always been, in the United States, what Lionel Trilling called a business civilization. But we have also always had a range of counterbalancing institutions, countercultural institutions, to advance a different set of values: the churches, the arts, the democratic tradition itself. When the pendulum has swung too far in one direction (and it’s always the same direction), new institutions or movements have emerged, or old ones have renewed their mission. Education in general, and higher education in particular, has always been one of those institutions. But now the market has become so powerful that it’s swallowing the very things that are supposed to keep it in check […] colleges and universities are acting like businesses, and in the service of businesses.

Perhaps just as important as its imposition on internal goods proves the way in which neoliberalism makes itself seem inescapable, neither more than less than the natural order. This stems from market logic introducing itself at all levels of institutions and life, down to the very individual herself. In stark contrast with neoliberal intuitions of liberty, institutions and individuals alike are made to feel as the results of objective economic forces (an interesting echo of Marxism):

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, presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options. That they have to do what the market tells them.

Certainly, resistance to just such a view of institution and individuals has grown in recent years with the founding of new schools and nonprofits, with the proposal of more affordable university education. Yet these measures cannot help but prove insufficient, for they are merely piecemeal solutions to a problem that requires a far broader approach. For, as suggested, new efforts at counterbalancing this logic do not have a sufficiently clear view of the problem at the base of it all:

[N]one of them address the fundamental problem, which is that we no longer believe in public solutions. We only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions: one-at-a-time solutions, individual solutions.

In the concluding paragraphs, Deresiewicz again shows himself rather close to Stout in sentiment. In particular, he cites the way in which leadership, as defined by the neoliberal, has overtaken citizenship as the principle girding democratic society at the level of discourse, practice, traditions, and virtues. He elaborates on citizenship by noting:

The worst thing about “leadership,” the notion that society should be run by highly trained elites, is that it has usurped the place of “citizenship,” the notion that society should be run by everyone together. Not coincidentally, citizenship — the creation of an informed populace for the sake of maintaining a free society, a self-governing society — was long the guiding principle of education in the United States. To escape from neoliberal education, we must escape from neoliberalism. If that sounds impossible, bear in mind that neoliberalism itself would have sounded impossible as recently as the 1970s.

In sum, in a renewed effort to inculcate a sense of citizenship stands the solution both to the problem of neoliberal education and to the ongoing imposition of a neoliberal logic on goods, practices and institutions to which it is external. It seems essential to maintain this binocularity, the view of the small- and large-scale, when pursuing our transformation of extant discourse in the public sphere.

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