03/02/2018 by Michael Brosnan |

Knowledge as a Private Commodity?

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Lawrence Busch’s “Knowledge for Sale: The Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education” (MIT Press, 2017) isn’t so much a tightly written rebuke of the neoliberal belief that markets solve problems better than governments and other institutions. Rather, when it comes to higher education, he argues that such a single-minded philosophy is both overly simplistic and dangerous.

Neoliberalism has been described as many things, but a core element is, as Busch puts it, “the abiding faith among many politicians, business leaders, and members of the general public in the primacy of markets and competition.” In higher education, the neoliberal goal boils down to a college and university degree being a private good. As such, institutions need to compete against each other for students and tuition revenue. They need to focus curricula on efficiently developing professional skills for employment. University research should primarily serve market needs.

Busch, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, is not arguing against college and university programs that focus on developing professionals in various fields. But he rejects the narrow — and increasingly dominant — view that “the only knowledge worth pursing is that which has more or less immediate market value.”

In neoliberal higher education, “knowledge that creates educated citizens, allows us to better make sense of our place in the world, introduces students to critical thinking, allows us to better understand the past, inspires enthusiasm in the quest for knowledge, and promotes new practices that do not have direct market value are at best downgraded.”

There is no single event that has turned the tide of higher education toward neoliberal outcomes. And, indeed, many colleges and universities remain committed, at least in part, to both a broad liberal arts education and culturally valuable academic research. But it’s clear that a variety of forces — taking their cue from Milton Friedman and other economists who argued back in the mid-20th century for the primacy of the market value — have been turning the ship of higher education steadily in this new direction. This shift is most evident in public higher education, but has also had a significant impact on private colleges and universities.

The neoliberal mindset has driven numerous changes over the past few decades, including shifting most of the costs of higher education from states to individual students. According to a recent report, in every state except Wyoming the share of revenue that public colleges and universities receive from tuition has gone up. Most states have steadily looked for ways to reduce the public support of public colleges and universities. In New Hampshire, where I live, the state has reduced its support for the state university system to less than 10 percent — the lowest in the nation. Some joke that the University of New Hampshire should be renamed the University in New Hampshire to reflect its true nature. To take another example, in Missouri, Governor Eric Geiten’s proposed 2019 budget calls for a $95 million reduction in education funding.

Along with the shift in funding has be a shift in mission. Neoliberals redefine the purpose of higher education primarily as the pathway to high-paying job — with only mild tolerance of the humanities and the arts. Increasingly, the energy and funding is going to business and STEM degrees.

Simultaneously, the neoliberal view has also reshaped the world of scholarly research into a competition for limited funds that primarily serve corporate needs. As Busch makes clear, when biotech companies like Monsanto and Novartis give millions to the University of California at Berkeley and other universities, they expect corporate benefits in return. University presidents may like the influx of research dollars — and even brag about it — but the result is an increasingly limited focus for academic research, the creation of multiple conflicts of interest, and the reduction of academic freedom. It also means that corporate profits take precedence over public health and safety.

This shift also explains the rise in partisan think tanks — smart, university-trained people serving narrow political ends. As way of example, Busch points to The Atlas Network, a project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, that brings together more than 450 free-market organizations in 80 countries. Supposedly in the name of a “free society,” this group to date has been highly successful in preventing and instilling doubt about all challenges to the neoliberal notion that our problems can be solved through the market-based policies. Writes Busch: “They vigorously attacked those persons and organizations concerned about cigarette smoking, global climate change, the hole in the ozone, acid rain, and a host of other environmental issues. They have even attacked long-deceased Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” for allegedly causing the death of thousands of persons.”

The cumulative results in higher education are alarming, says Busch. Instead of encouraging inquiry, creativity and intellectual curiosity, far too many of university courses now consists of “rote memorization of ‘facts’ that will be obsolete within a decade or less. Moreover, instead of producing educated citizens, we are more and more producing trained works who will be able to perform competently in a given job, but who will be utterly unprepared for future disruptions, technical change, or political upheaval.”

Busch doesn’t oppose the underlying neoliberal belief in individual liberty, but he argues that the neoliberal takeover of universities actually undermines individual liberty by forcing one set of values on everyone. As he puts it, “Attempting to turn all institutions into markets and competition degrades discourse while undermining research, education, public engagement and, ultimately, democracy.”

Another recent book that makes a similar claim is Christopher Newfield’s “The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2016). If anything, this book paints a darker picture of the pathway public universities have taken since the 1980s (thus, the title), arguing that on just about every level, the privatization of public universities — or simply the attempt to treat all colleges and universities like private corporations — has failed to achieve stated objectives. Newfield argues that “what everyone now laments — high student costs, stagnating educational benefits, and destabilized public college financing — flow not from public but from private sector practices.”

Based on a report from Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, Newfield also outlines the ways in which the current public university funding system is racist — funneling more money to the selective colleges and universities and less to open-access universities where many African-American and Latino students attend. The result is a highly uneven educational experience. The Market Watch website also makes this fact clear in a February 2018 article, “Public Colleges Are Becoming Less Public, Fueling Inequality.”

Reading these books and related articles, I certainly found myself hoping and rooting for the sort of humanistic reforms the authors outline. But I also found myself thinking about the impact of all these changes on the precollegiate world. It’s not hard to see the parallels — including the rise of the business mindset in school management, the push for standardization of learning and testing, the support for charter schools run by corporate-backed groups, the dropping of arts programs and, incredibly, of recess in some elementary schools, the call for voucher systems and school “choice” programs, blaming students and teachers for any achievement gap based on race and income, as well as the current U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to dismantle public education altogether in favor of some kind of privatized system highly influenced by the business community and focusing primarily on efficiency learning job skills.

Because there is a sharp — and for students and parents, an emotionally draining — line between the collegiate and precollegiate worlds, the two worlds only occasionally discuss mutual concerns. Like neighbors who are polite and respectful, but too occupied with their own lives to see that their needs overlap more than first appears, college and precollegiate leaders mostly acknowledge each other with quick smiles and waves and the occasional scowl in passing.

But clearly the challenges run parallel. And they push all of us to reexamine our collective view on the kind of future society we desire and how education helps us get there. The problem is that, currently, those who argue for a market-driven world are drowning out those who argue for education in service of a sustainable democracy. Many of us pretend it isn’t as bad as some of these writers claim. But no matter how you look at it, it’s bad. Christopher Newfield describes our lack of response as “bipartisan austerity blindness.”

In an effort to wake us from such blindness, Newfield writes, “For years now, our public colleges have been cut, squeezed, trimmed, neglected, overstuffed, misdirected, kludged and patched. As a logical result, they do their core educational jobs less well than they used to — in a period when society needs them more than ever.”

In the independent school world, one might argue that schools are still deeply committed to a large social good. The mission statements in most schools focus on developing smart and good people who, along with whatever else they might do in life, are committed to democratic citizenship. One mission statement I came across recently makes this commitment crystal clear: “[The School] is committed to developing each student’s potential to become an intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizen of the world.”

This ubiquitous, bifurcated mission of smart and good students is one of the reasons that independent schools are so attractive to families. I think it’s also what attracts so many talented teachers. In fact, with colleges and universities turning more and more to adjuncts who can barely earn enough money to keep themselves afloat, even when working full-time, more and more talented people are looking to teach in independent schools, which by and large still treat teachers like human beings.

But independent schools face the same neoliberal pressures that private, independent colleges and universities face — and, indeed, many of the pressures are increasingly apparent. The so-called helicopter parents who hover over their children and their children’s schools looking for any individual advantage for their children, are doing so because of what they perceive as the pressures of the market — the need to get to the most prestigious college to get to the highest paying jobs. If colleges and universities are going to play the game of accepting students with the highest SATs and class rankings as a way to boost their prestige, aggressive parents are going to want independent schools to make this goal their top priority. When powerful people on school boards drink too much of the Kool-Aid, they start pushing independent schools to pursue neoliberal goals. To a great degree, this pressure is what drives up the push for state-of-the-art facilities, recruiting the “best” students and athletes, and communications efforts that boast to the world of institutional greatness. And so on. Meanwhile, tuitions have soared way past what the middle or even the upper middle class can afford. Schools try to counter this by fund-raising constantly and growing their endowments. But conversations on how to scale back costs almost always fail. Individual institutional prestige, not mission, is too often the driving force.

If you believe in neoliberal causes, you’ll sleep well these days. If you don’t, you are in for some restless nights. Like Newfield, Busch points out the neoliberal approaches to higher education have largely failed to date. It has not led to greater efficiencies, but to more bureaucracy. It has not led to more liberties, but to constraints on teaching and research and community engagement. “It has not led to new ways to grapple with the crises that face us but to trending farther down the same paths that created those crises.”

Independent schools are at risk because of the strength of the neoliberal movement. I don’t worry about enrollment in the majority of independent schools. But I do worry about the schools losing site of their missions — particularly when it comes to enrolling students across a broader economic spectrum, and to making sure a key institutional goal is education for the common good.

I also worry about the potential for for-profit private schools to take a greater foothold in the market. Indeed, the well-publicized Avenues School in New York City — with its mission to make money on the backs of children — is gaining some ground. And sadly, more than a few independent school educators are helping — lured by over-inflated salaries.

I’ve loved watching independent schools move toward multicultural learning communities over the past 20 years. I’ve seen the growth in schools committed to the public good. I’ve been to independent school conferences where teachers and administrators passionately discussed environmental issues and how to make schools part of the solution and not the problem. Over all, I admire how school faculties remain deeply committed to education for both the individual and the broader society. But I also know that we must be on our guard and constantly reexamine where we’re going. The neoliberal mindset has gained serious momentum — and it’s not hard to see how it’s reflected in some of our own policies and practices.

It may feel counterintuitive to suggest, but independent schools, like private colleges and universities, need to care as deeply about public schools and public universities as they do about their own institutions. It’s this public-good mindset that has pushed many independent schools to increase their public outreach and shape their societal missions. But we can’t let up. We can’t continue claiming we are educating our students for a democratic citizenship while watching our public counterparts get systematically dismantled by a neoliberal mindset that offers a narrow, flawed, and strikingly undemocratic view of how schools, colleges, and universities should function.


Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor, with a particular interest in education and social change. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan54@gmail.com.

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