The Neoliberal University and the Neoliberal Curriculum.

Author:Adler, Eric

"Neoliberalism" a dirty word in American academia.

Without a doubt, "neoliberalism" is among the latest dirty words in American academia. In the last decade or so, a variety of scholarly monographs has criticized the influence of neoliberalism on universities in the United States Thus, for example, the philosopher and literary scholar Jeffrey Di Leo has written about Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy; the cultural critic Henry Giroux has discussed Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education; and the philosopher Donald Nicolson even contributed a tome called Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities. (1)

A dearth of precision about neoliberalism's meaning.

Although they are a popular addition to the literature on higher education, such tracts typically fail to present a precise definition of neoliberalism and are often more successful at criticizing the vicissitudes of contemporary American colleges and universities than presenting a positive model for the future. The slipperiness of neoliberalism as a concept in recent critiques of higher learning is not a surprise: according to the political scientists Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse, in scholarship neoliberalism "is effectively used in many different ways, such that its appearance in any given article offers little clue as to what it actually means." (2) Nevertheless, critics of neoliberalism in higher education have something common in mind when they speak of neoliberalism's influence, and if the stakes are as high as they suggest, their arguments merit careful consideration.

In short, scholars from a variety of ideological and disciplinary backgrounds have understandable objections to the dominance of what Giroux calls "free-market fundamentalism" in institutions of higher learning. (3) To give just one example, the impetus to treat curricular matters as a series of business decisions appears to have had some troubling effects on U.S. colleges and universities. Newspaper reports suggest that, at all but the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, the push to regard students as little more than consumers has gained extraordinary momentum. (4) While students are empowered as consumers, the perplexing consequence of these arrangements may be the disappearance of the humanities altogether.

Critics of neoliberalism in academia raise important questions.

Not for nothing, then, do ever-increasing numbers of scholars criticize the rise of what they term neoliberalism in U.S. colleges and universities. Their work on the subject explicitly or implicitly poses questions of cardinal importance. Are students best viewed as consumers? More broadly, why should non-profit institutions entrusted with educating the nation's young increasingly be run in a manner scarcely distinct from for-profit businesses? Why should the cost of an undergraduate degree continue vastly to outpace inflation, if American colleges and universities rely on an ever-larger coterie of cheap labor to teach their classes? (5) Is the corporate model an appropriate means for organizing higher education in the first place? Surely, recent critiques of neoliberal academia, for all their imprecision and polemical verve, resonate with readers because they highlight pressing problems in American higher education.

Influential analyses lack historical depth.

But this article will show that influential analyses of the neoliberal academy, despite their strengths, pay insufficient attention to the history of colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as to the broader humanistic tradition. As a result, such works vastly post-date the origins of neoliberalism and corporatization in higher education, and foist the blame for the problems they identify on the wrong actors, forces, and even time period. Thus, although these critiques tend to view the so-called academic culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s as the wellspring of the neoliberal university--and consider supposedly traditionalistic culture warriors such as Allan Bloom to be particularly at fault--we shall see that neoliberalism's influence began much earlier. In fact, one must look to the curricular battles of late-nineteenth-century America to find the origins of campus neoliberalism. Though late-twentieth-century privatization must have helped quicken the acceptance of the business model among academic administrators in the U.S., the current literature on neoliberal academia often neglects the key and far earlier role of the American research university in bringing about campus neoliberalism. An understanding of the curricular debates of the nineteenth century will thus help strengthen scholarly critiques of our nation's higher learning, ensuring a more profitable reaction to our current predicament. It will be argued that one cannot overlook the nature of undergraduate curricula when examining the structure and priorities of contemporary American institutions of higher learning.


Traditionalistic culture warriors of the 1980s and 1990s blamed by Left for campus neoliberalism.

Numerous jeremiads today about American higher education demonstrate a disinclination to examine their subject in a broad historical perspective. Thus many such works seldom cast their purview earlier than the academic culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and see these decades as the years that inaugurated the push to treat higher education as a business. To such authors, traditionalistic culture warriors are to blame for campus neoliberalism. Indeed, contemporary critics of the neoliberal university see the conservative attacks on American academia during the highly publicized feuds of the 1980s and 1990s as a means to spread "free-market fundamentalism" in higher education.

According to Ellen Schrecker's The Lost Soul of Higher Education, for example, late twentieth-century critiques of the humanities caught on with the American public thanks to "a highly self-conscious and well-financed campaign to destroy the influence of the academic left, a campaign that has had serious consequences for all of American higher education." (6) Although admitting that this contention may "smack of a conspiratorial mind-set," Schrecker believes that "the evidence for such a campaign is too overwhelming to ignore." (7) She suggests that American corporate leaders, distressed by the unpopularity of their views, inaugurated a series of thinktanks and foundations to support laissez-faire policies, and hence pushed forward the neoliberal agenda--in the academy and elsewhere. Schrecker highlights Allan Bloom, author of the bestselling polemic The Closing of the American Mind, (8) as just one of those to benefit from the largesse of conservative plutocrats, who spread money in hopes that academia could be made more pro-business in its outlook. (9) Without such help, Schrecker surmises, Bloom's denunciation of higher...

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