On 8 June 2018, Andrew Seal’s “How the University Became Neoliberal” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. Seal opens with a summary of historical critiques of corporatist education, emphasizing Mario Savio’s 1964 speech and its successors. It pivots thence into a treatment of the term “neoliberal” and its derivatives, spending a section on its appropriateness and the development of its concept from such notions as “corporate universities” and “late capitalism.” The emergence of the term in the work of David Harvey and its proliferation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and its ongoing aftereffects also receive attention, with the specific connections to adjunctification and institutional austerity being emphasized before an agreement with Harvey’s assertion that financial crises are inherent, system-desired features of capitalism. Efforts to unify among academics are detailed, demonstrating the idea that the ivory tower is now what the factory floor was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–an inherently political locus of power that can be seized, control of which exerts outsize influence on current society. The article ends with an affirmation of the university’s pivotal role in struggles to come.
Some points of interest present themselves in the piece. One emerges near the end of the article; Seal writes that “Neoliberal politics aren’t coming from outside the ivory tower: The caller is in the house.” In a short phrase, Seal ties his article–and the phenomenon it describes–to horror film, which is entirely appropriate. While the current state of affairs in academe might well be described as dystopian (and not just from my academic expatriate perspective), any dystopia has at least elements of horror to it; if nothing else, the situations that give rise to dystopias are themselves horrific, not least because they seem to be so easily accomplished and so willingly entered into by the people who let and make them happen. (To follow the implication, though, I have to wonder who or what will be Clover’s final girl; there aren’t any innocents in all this, it seems. And the implied gendering has resonance that I’m not sure I’m qualified to untangle; it could just be my own iteration of internalized patriarchal-hegemonic institutional structures at work.)
Another is the discussion of the Edu-Factory Collective, something with which I had been wholly unfamiliar prior to reading the article (and with which I am still largely unfamiliar-but some understanding is a thing that can be built upon at need or at desire, so there is some improvement). The quote from that group that “We vindicate the university’s destruction…[we are] not merely immune to tears for the past but enemies of such a nostalgic disposition [sic]” rings strangely in my inward ear; that I remain as I do despite my experience suggests that I still see value in institutionalized higher education, that I recognize there are things that universities can do well, if allowed to do so–but I will admit that that may well be my own inherent biases at work, my own internalization of social mores and norms that serve only to restrict me in ways that benefit those in positions of power–not least by ensuring that my own access to power is limited.
It may also be from those biases that I find myself nodding along with Seal’s reminder that the educational enterprise has never not been political. The choice of curriculum is a political act; whether it is to work in a “Great Books” tradition of liberal arts instruction or to work to make every assignment in every course more or less explicit job training, a course of study emerges from and reinscribes an ideology. Even in such “real” and “unbiased” things as math and physics, such is the case–that things are taught as they are taught, whether in terms of assignment sequence or course division, is always a result of and contributor to such decisions. To assert otherwise is ignorant at best, inaccurate in all cases, bullshit in most, and an outright lie in far too many–and of each, we ought to be wary, though we do less well in that than should be done.