The Failings Of Neoliberal Education

We all came to Boston College for a reason. Our trajectory to get here was more or less universal, give or take a few elements: we went to class, we engaged our teachers, we raised our hand, became a presence. We volunteered, we joined the team, became captain of the team, joined the choir, joined the band, ran for student council, won. We took prep courses, we pulled all-nighters, we memorized conjugations, derivatives, formulas, SAT strategies, ACT strategies, dates of wars, numbers of victims, names from the French Revolution. Why? For acceptance to BC, where we will spend four years repeating the same rush to the finish line, complete our education, and voila: have our golden ticket into the world of mobility, financial security, and success. Because that’s what this is all about, right?

Thus is the age of neoliberal education. We are customers, here to complete a transaction. If we are savvy customers, we will analyze the cost-benefit: how can I maximize the monetary value of my time here? Lo and behold, it is painfully apparent: the universities, the curricula, the students, have all fallen victim to the market. My worth as a student has been reduced to the potential market activity I will yield post-graduation. Neoliberal education’s purpose is to mold students into commercial producers. The emphasis on the actual “learning” part of attending a university falls to the wayside as the practical takes the reigns—no longer do we learn for the sake of learning, but rather we learn to secure our future place in the market.

Perhaps you are thinking that this model of education is all well and good. With the astronomical cost of tuition, book fees, dining expenses, and so on, why shouldn’t students weigh the benefits of their education in a monetary context? Okay, fine. But what is really at stake here? If we choose to accept this neoliberal framework, we are being forced to view our time at school as a stepping-stone, a way to ensure future prosperity. We consider what types of majors will lead to the most lucrative jobs. Maybe I am really passionate about poetry, but no, no, that won’t do, there’s no money in becoming a poet, so I better major in biology, or engineering, or business instead. That makes more sense in the long run: the pragmatic means to an ideal end.

But there are many complicating factors in this logic. There is behavioral science research from Slavoj Zizek in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously that suggests that “external incentives [monetary rewards] can be counterproductive: optimal performance comes when people find intrinsic meaning in their work.” It’s true that monetary rewards are a good incentive to get people to accomplish mundane tasks, but this reward system doesn’t work when people are asked to complete more intellectually demanding endeavors. So even though I may think that majoring in biology will allow me to reap the most lucrative benefits, if I don’t have an actual interest in the subject, I’m not going to be operating at my highest potential. This will cause me to, inevitably, be less successful than someone in that field who actually wants to pursue the subject out of inherent interest for it.

That is just one of the problems that neoliberalism poses for education. Perhaps more poignantly, neoliberalism is placing  critical thought and practice at risk. Even at a liberal arts university, we rarely see examples of students going to office hours to engage in an open dialogue about an interesting topic. Rather, we go to office hours to find out how we can get a better grade, because a better grade is a necessary facet of getting a better job later on. We aren’t pursuing knowledge as an end in itself. Intellectual discourse, curiosity for ideas, a passion to understand and mold arguments—things that were once understood as cornerstones of higher education—are no longer purposes that hold value for their own sakes. We are always viewing our learning as a path that leads to our future, and this places an enormous amount of scrutiny on the classic liberal arts.

I will be graduating with degrees in English and philosophy, and adults often ask me, “Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?” This question illuminates the problem. It’s a question that people seem to find necessary to ask when these majors are named, because it’s not clear as to how the soon-to-be graduate will fit into the market structure. If you’re majoring in, say, economics (which is BC’s most popular major), most people will just acceptingly nod, since the career path is implicitly clearer with this type of degree. The status quo, which maintains the idea that professionally oriented learning is the ideal choice, isn’t challenged, and so society feels comfortable—no questions needed. I do not mean to sound coarse or self indulgent, but enough of this already. What do you mean, what am I going to do with that? Anything! Upon graduating, I’ve learned how to close read, I’ve learned how to dissect and create arguments, I’ve learned the power of actual thought, my thought—isn’t that why my parents sent me here, to learn how to think? Thanks to neoliberalism, we have stripped away the intrinsic value of learning and scholarship.

Neoliberal education creates employees, not scholars. It is a model that excludes the potential for change, that replaces creativity with innovation, pressures students to approach their education as a means, and breeds students whose efforts are aimed at internships and resume building, which inevitably pushes knowledge, for its own sake, lower on the list of priorities. Universities are no longer molding citizens. Citizenship has been usurped by “leadership,” a claim prolifically articulated in William Deresiewicz’s essay on “The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market.” We no longer have a sense of the collective good—we have allowed the market to impose on us the need for private-sector solutions, designed for the individual, not for the collective.

Leadership, Deresiewicz argues, does not pursue any fundamental change, but rather change that is controlled by a body of the elite within a market structure. This has powerful implications. The greatest problems facing society today (Deresiewicz notes climate change and employment in the context of increasing automation) call for foundational change in the organization of our society. So as long as universities continue to fall victim to neoliberalism, it seems that our future leaders will not be equipped with the ability to imagine a new world, though this is exactly what we need.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphics