Education, Free Speech

The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities

In “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” published in The New York Times last Autumn, Bret Stephens discusses our failure to have reasoned discussions, stating: “We no longer just have our own opinions. We also have our separate ‘facts,’ often the result of what different media outlets consider newsworthy.” Stephens elaborates on the ways in which the polarisation of opinion has become personal, to the extent that facts remain up for debate, weighed against feelings he claims are “purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.” He implores his readers to embrace an education model that does not seek fixed answers but instead opens up texts and ideas to interrogation.

Many of us in academia have struggled with this very problem—how are we to revive a spirit of inquiry in the classroom during an era of great pressure to conform to fashionable theoretical trends and hip analyses? One interesting facet of Stephens’s text is that he calls up the 1987 Allan Bloom best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind.  Yet, Stephens has reframed the prevailing and more traditional perception of Bloom’s work. He suggests that it is not a conservative polemic but rather a liberal call for an inquisitive and open approach to reading texts.

Certainly, in the late 1980s Bloom’s opponents were inevitably leftists, defiantly hostile to his defence of liberal education. However, more recent reconsiderations of Bloom’s work reveals that others share Stephens’s view that Bloom’s push for a more critical approach to literature was anything but conservative. In a 2012 essay for the New YorkerMatt Feeney described the chapter “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede” as a “secretly erotic quest for sublime knowledge to an existentially urgent battle for nonconformity.”  In a 2005 article for the New York TimesJim Sleeper describes Bloom’s views on neoliberal education as a thoroughgoing critique of capitalist economy, citing the university as that unpopular bastion which “resists our powerful urges and temptations.” Contending that Bloom did not reduce the crisis of liberal education to a tug of war between the Left and the Right, Sleeper characterizes Bloom’s position on education as a plea to the student to resist both “whatever is most powerful” and the “worship of vulgar success.” Given that Bloom also laments the emergence of academic departments as mass communications and business management, which he claims “wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university,” it is clear that The Closing of the American Mind is not as conservative as many initially thought.

Closer scrutiny of his book reveals that Bloom’s efforts are focussed on encouraging his readers to think, to read, and to question—activities which today are quickly disappearing from academia across the English-speaking world. University professors are often asked not to require their students to read or write very much, if at all. Requests for professors to “lighten the reading load” have in recent years resulted in many being asked to abandon reading altogether so that today this task is viewed as merely ‘optional.’ Students, who now represent something closer to entitled neoliberal clients, now get to decide what empowers them more: studying and coming to class or virtually ‘attending’ their lectures and tutorials through online interfaces initially intended to be spaces for students to find course information and view online documents (i.e. Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc).

Many university professors are now expected to present lectures as a series of keywords using PowerPoint, where knowledge has been whittled down to the bare linguistic essentials. As a result, learning resembles a visual briefing, a York Notes to higher education, in which the university-as-job-centre offers utilitarian degrees in Media Studies and Business, a pitstop on the way to becoming the next Bitcoin innovator like Satoshi Nakamoto or Vitalik Buterin. Since economic worship is driving these shortcuts to learning and the cheapening of knowledge, the end effect of the neo-liberalisation of higher education is simply to produce a job while still rewarding the white middle-class graduates with a false sense of political empowerment.

I experienced precisely this at two UK universities where I was asked not to have students read or write. I have also witnessed colleagues throughout the humanities since the late 1990s bow to similar pressures in universities from North America to the UK. There is a growing trend among university administrators to ask that professors lessen—or entirely eliminate—reading while also enjoining faculty to create courses geared more towards entertainment than education. At the same time, universities are turning students into ‘clients,’ whose measurable ‘outputs’ and ‘impact’ are to be quantified and managed. In turn, the intellectual decimation of higher education is being justified by this managerial class, which offers young students the dreams of futures careers, sometimes with a written guarantee of job placement. And all of this is taking place amidst growing economic pressures to come up with rising tuitions fees, as approximately 71 percent of students take out loans to pay for education incurring a student loan debt that can take decades to pay off.

This commodification of education has contributed directly to the dumbing down of higher education, from the classroom to the wider campus. Between the clientelism driven by rising fees and the onus on professors to deliver a product, the end result has been a student-led culture, in which the client-turned-activist denounces the teaching of the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad as ‘racist’ and the teaching of certain ideas collides with the imperatives of social justice dogma. Classes have become infantilized spaces for presentations of trivia, in which facts are glossed over while certain politicised keywords are superficially incorporated into a classroom lexicon so that already vague terms like ‘positionality,’ ‘relational,’ and ‘problematic’ reduce prose to meaningless drivel. By feeding students academic jargon stripped of historical or philosophical context, the classroom has been transformed from a space in which to engage and discuss close textual readings into the soundstage of a daytime talk show where feelings matter more than facts, often at the expense of the syllabus. The principle idea is simply to ensure factory production: keep the student-consumers happy so that they return the following semester for more of the same. Or, as one colleague advised me in a university where I was about to take up my first tenure-track position, “Don’t give the students much reading—that way your class evaluations will be excellent and you will have no problem getting tenure.”

The consequent decline of academic rigour has resulted in a warped political tendentiousness on college campuses across North America and beyond, where learning is now less about studying a subject and more about aligning one’s writing and research with a particular ideology. Having crept from the classroom to the wider university environment, the political triumph of ideology over open debate and free inquiry has been buttressed by much of the theoretical hocus-pocus taught over the past three decades. It is not surprising that the vast amount of hokum presented to humanities students as ‘knowledge’ has in recent years produced a sort of academic ‘blowback,’ with student-clients being armed with a rhetoric of social justice which stipulates that facts are inconvenient and complaints about micro-aggressions and triggered emotions are said to merit serious attention.

This focus on jargon and academic buzzwords has precipitated the humanities’ decline and the closing down of literature and language departments over the past 20 years. Pressure is now increasing on students to take up “practical studies” believed to help them secure a job rather than to study and learn for their own sake. And, although the social sciences have been affected by postmodern theory to a lesser degree, there is still a crude pragmatism at the heart of speciality degrees dealing with certain social issues (for example, opioid and pornography addiction) which are narrowly grounded in practical applications, the meeting of market pressures, and the adaptability of many social science degrees.

Today, certain historical facts may be deemed politically incorrect, and the university campus has become precisely the nightmare about which Bloom warned his readers all those years ago.  Campuses are now sites where invited speakers are regularly no-platformed, where the surveillance of professors who do not toe a favored political line in their research or the classroom are ‘called out’ on social media and beyond, and where academic publishing is now in the cross-hairs for certain intellectual queries deemed verboten. While those of us on the Left once protested the likes of Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch in 2002, today the Left brings us campus groups which employ intimidating if not violent tactics to defend one type of speech, while actively suppressing others.

Last April, Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, experienced a severe form of academic hazing following the publication of her article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” in the peer-reviewed philosophy journal, Hypatia. Herein she makes the argument that if we are to embrace the identity politics of transgender individuals, then, in the name of logical consistency, we ought to extend this courtesy to Rachel Dolezal’s assumed self-identification as a black woman. Instead of receiving the support of those in the humanities who had created and promulgated the theories of identity politics over historical materialism, Tuvel was denounced in an open letter signed by over 800 scholars from various fields across the United States. Professor Nora Berenstain, claimed in a Facebook post (now private) that Tuvel’s article “contains egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.” And yet, there was no evidence of any ‘violence’ being committed aside from Berenstain’s inexplicable social media allegations. Between the open letter and the onslaught of social media harassment, these academics were able to keep their hands clean and salaries secure while emboldening their student-clients to do their bidding.

The social justice warrior professors and students alike were able to throw out obscure terms that made Tuvel sound dangerous, but as José Luis Bermúdez’s analysis of the situation last Spring maintains, words actually do need to have meanings:

There may indeed be some argument to be made here. But nobody is attempting to make it, or apparently recognizing that it needs to be made. Innuendo takes the place of argument. Name-calling replaces evidence. This is simply an abnegation of basic academic values, underwritten by failure to explain the relevant concept of harm (or how it is being differentiated from offense in this case).

Bermúdez’s critique of the those who signed up to haze Tuvel reveals this reversal at work. While there is no evidence of Tuvel having committed any offence, the central claim made about her paper—that she “enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay”—is aggressively deployed by those who sought to end her academic career. They merely spun the terms ‘discursive violence’ and ‘epistemic violence’ to mean actual violence—and people bought it. Moreover, seasoned academics mobbing a young scholar by the hundreds is not only anti-intellectual, but raises important questions about the cruel behaviour and punishing environment within academia.

One of the signatories to the Tuvel letter was George Ciccariello-Maher who, while a professor at Drexel University, blamed “Trumpism” and the “narrative of white victimization” for the mass shooting in Las Vegas on 1 October, 2017. Heavily criticized for this tweet, Ciccariello-Maher was eventually placed on leave. He then blamed the right-wing media for reporting on his inflammatory social media behavior, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he claimed that the Daily Caller had “chopp[ed] my tweets up into a misleading mishmash that transformed a nuanced diagnosis of white male frustration into an attack on white people in general.” He went on, “[M]ore and more, professors like me are being targeted by a coordinated right-wing campaign to undermine our academic freedom—one that relies on misrepresentation and sometimes outright lying, and often puts us and our students in danger.” Imagine having someone distort and misrepresent what you have written! The irony was lost on Ciccariello-Maher.

Just months earlier, Bret Weinstein was placed in a similar situation, only this time by the supposed Left. Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Evergreen State College, argued that a request that all white students absent themselves from campus for a day constituted “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” For expressing this view, he was confronted outside his classroom by a group of roughly 50 students who labelled him a ‘racist.’ Weinstein’s patient attempts to explain the importance of dialectic was only met with further cries of racism (despite zero evidence). As the video recording of the confrontation demonstrates, the accusation has become the rallying cry of students committed to the incitement of misdirected outrage. Weinstein challenged his tormentors to define what they meant by ‘racism’ and ‘white privilege’ but without success.

Meanwhile, campus vigilantism has also been flourishing across the Atlantic. Last November, one of the co-founders of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK, Heather Brunskell-Evans, was no-platformed by the students of King’s College after she appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze and expressed her opposition to the transitioning of children. Invited by medical students at King’s Reproductive and Sexual Health Society to deliver a talk, she was then disinvited and sacked from her role in the WEP, following a secret disciplinary hearing. This kind of militant intolerance is now growing outside of academic walls; just last week Brunskell-Evans and other women due to speak at a venue in Bristol, UK found themselves surrounded by protesters who tried to halt the meeting, and physically intimidated some of the speakers and audience as they arrived.

Shouldn’t the whole point and purpose of the university be the free exchange of ideas, and not the surveillance and circumscription of intellectual debate? If democracy is to function, we must be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the ability to hold open debates in which everyone takes responsibility for their ideas, even if those ideas make some people uncomfortable. The difficult question we must ask, from both inside and outside academia, is why the university has become a breeding ground for a particularly intolerant kind of leftist activism.

Bloom’s prescient work is now 31 years old, but Bloom foresaw the tragic decline of education. Today we are living with its totalitarian consequences, in which the mere questioning of prevailing ideas results in the total shutdown of academic debate, where the politics of the real has been replaced by quasi -academic gobbledygook, and where a censorious callout culture has replaced critical thinking.


Julian Vigo is an independent scholar, filmmaker, and activist who specializes in ethnography, cultural studies, political philosophy, and postcolonial theory. Her latest book is “Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development” (2015). You can follow her on Twitter at @lubelluledotcom


  1. Anthony says

    Universities are a scam and this only accentuates it. You can get better education with Google, Amazon Kindle, and a little self-determination.

  2. In the early 80s, when this commodification began, there was a push to have humanities programs become more “relevant” and more “rigorous”. This was one of the reasons “Theory” became so central to English departments, which were possibly the most heavily pressured of all the humanities to justify their existence. The pressure of course was coming from the neoliberal right- the folks who created the situation universities find themselves in now.

    You really can’t expect 50% of any given population of 19-21-year-olds to get down in the dirt with Plato and Shelley and the actual existing Derrida. These people come out of a culture that produces almost no one capable of engaging with the great works of literature and philosophy the humanities have traditionally taken as their subject matter.

    Best that they be channeled into STEM fields where they can at least be prepared for some kind of useful work and their reading comprehension deficits won’t matter so much?

    • ga gamba says

      HVAC is lucrative career. Don’t need a uni degree for it either.

      The Anglophone world ought to closely examine what Germany, Switzerland, and others have done to maximise employment prospects for those with average abilities or who don’t wish to pursue tertiary education.

      • augustine says

        Doesn’t the European education model, including UK, dichotomize students early on? The results of one or two key exams in K-12 determine a tradesman course of education or, with better academic performance, on to university. I’ve always thought this made every bit of sense.

      • The Anglophone world would be in a state of revolution if it ever tried to do such a thing. In Germany the vocational education/apprenticeship program is essentially a ‘corporatist’ institution composed of corporations, unions and governments working in coordination to create outcomes that serve society, industry and the individual.

        This is Quillette, man. Don’t want no socialism/fascism ’round here!

        A Swiss friend of mine did 2 or 3 years of “college” to work in a pharmacy. When I asked her if that meant she was a pharmacist, she laughed and waved her hands “no no no no no”. After a long series of ever more detailed questions it emerged that she was a sales clerk. She made 40K a year (this was late 90s) and had bennies up the yin-yang.

        In the US or Canada, her job would be done by a gum-chewing slack-jawed Cletus or Cletesse getting $8 an hour and having as much job security as a chimpanzee has life insurance.

        The Anglophone world isn’t ready for Swiss or German economics.

        • augustine says

          Whether the diversion is after 12th grade or before, the goal is the same: help meet current and projected workforce needs by preparing students in their roles and options, according to ability and inclination.

          Obviously not everyone can or should go to university, the academic-white collar route. Yet that seems to be the direction students are pushed (bullied?) into by the culture, at the same time blue collar jobs are tacitly derided (must be where those Trump voters came from…). I know plumbers who make more than college graduates of the same age and I think everyone knows this is not an uncommon scenario.

          All of this posturing might have something to do with the push for “gender equality” by deemphasizing jobs unappealing or unsuited to women, i.e., it is much easier to aim for equal results amongst androgynous office drones.

          Why not develop competence in trades before graduation, and more technical schools afterward? The “dichotomy” exists so why not capitalize on it?

          • As I suggested above, any attempt to enforce this sort of corporatist control of education in the Anglophone world would be met by the horrified screams of classical liberals and other phantoms of the right wing of individual freedom marchers.

            It would probably get the label of Cultural Marxism and be laid at the feet of Derrida and Foucault for good measure. You’re halfway there with the absurd suggestion that it is feminism to blame.

    • robin says

      I don’t think we should trust kids with subpar reading comprehension to build bridges, airplanes or to secure networks and databases. Engineering documentation can be quite tedious and demanding even though it lacks the art of classic literature.

      • augustine says

        @ mjw51

        I’m not sure why you insist that it is “corporatism” to rework curricula to accommodate practical needs. Minor changes in schools (work training, etc.) are made on a regular basis by communities and states along similar lines. At some point trigonometry becomes irrelevant for some and shop is a distraction, but people who excel in either are necessary when school is finished. Egalitarianism has its limits.

  3. Daniel says

    Cicariello-Maher wrote: “professors like me are being targeted by a coordinated right-wing campaign to undermine our academic freedom—one that relies on misrepresentation and sometimes outright lying, and often puts us and our students in danger.”

    The unintended meaning of his quote was actually the most accurate: his academic freedom relies on misrepresentation and lying, and often puts people at risk.

  4. ga gamba says

    On the surface I don’t find much to disagree with in this piece.

    Shouldn’t the whole point and purpose of the university be the free exchange of ideas, and not the surveillance and circumscription of intellectual debate? If democracy is to function, we must be willing to entertain unpopular ideas and cultivate the ability to hold open debates in which everyone takes responsibility for their ideas, even if those ideas make some people uncomfortable.

    Who can disagree with this?

    Yet, there were a few incidents mentioned plus the writer’s bio that didn’t sit right and piqued my curiosity, so I dug a bit, and then much more. And I found the writer is sponsoring a petition to remove an exhibit from the San Francisco Public Library presently. So much for the free exchange of ideas, eh? I have no objection to a protest of the exhibit, though the intellectual debate she claims to advocate would be preferable. Yet, here’s Ms Vigo demanding to ban an exhibit which offends her fragile sensitivities in some way from a public institution of learning, which is what a library is. “But the children!!!” Accommodations may be made to shield their eyes.

    Appears Quillette has become a target for radfems to post articles wherein they profess their concern about the loss of free speech in institutions and public spaces, and couched within these pieces are attacks against transpeople. Justifiably so. Transpeople, their allies, and anyone else suppressing speech deserve such criticism. However, I think the radfems are playing us.

    The radfems are dishonest tricksters here because historically they’ve been the ones shutting down speech, attempting to no-platform people, etc. They’ve long played the game transpeople play today – consider the radfems the transpeople’s mentors. It isn’t that radfems cherish free speech for all (you ought to read about the utopia they have planned), they’re upset their tactics are used against them, and a PR offensive hs been devised to bamboozle a readership who are less understanding of radical feminism and their dispute with the trans community. Their principles are ones of convenience.

    Now, if the radfems have had a real change of heart, genuinely appreciate the blessings of speech liberties, and reform themselves by publicly disavowing banning, no platforming, and other forms of censorship, I welcome them to the table. If this is the case, I ask they cease with the subterfuge – you have too many tells in your essays, and you owe your reader honesty.

    We shall see.

    • K says

      I’d like a link for some info on the feminist-planned utopia, if you have one. Thanks.

      • ga gamba says

        Oh, you want unpaid labour? Okie dokie. Here are a few books you may buy or borrow from a library.

        The Women Men Don’t See
        Women in search of utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers
        Feminist Futures – Contemporary Women’s Speculative Fiction
        The Female Man
        The Left Hand of Darkness
        The Gate to Women’s Country
        Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
        A Weave of Women
        The Wanderground

        If you want to add some horror try Bloodchild.

        And if you’re looking for the theory in practice such as radfem communes, the BBC documentary about UK’s revolutionary feminists is worth a view,

        • K says

          Unpaid labor? Joke? I’m just interested in the subject matter.

          I’ll start with the video – my reading list is monumental. I have read The Left Hand of Darkness, but it has been several years. I appreciate you taking the time.


    • This article, taken by itself, is pretty much ok, though. After reading your comment, I had a quick look at some of Julian Vigo’s writing. It’s mixed, and she seems to adjust the content according to the outlet: blatantly misandric for Feminist Current, praising free speech and scholarship unconstrained by cultural studies mores on Quillette. She does seem to have some scholarship herself, and there’s an interview with Cordelia Fine which shows insight and intelligence. Her other writing shows her as definitely against trans women being accepted as women. I favour responding to what’s written in any one forum though, rather than criticising everything at once.

  5. K says

    Why not print the tweet that went viral and landed Cicariello-Maher in the public spotlight in the first place?

    “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.”

    These people say things and, when opposition surfaces, they hide behind academic buzzwords like “nuance” and “subtlety” and “context”. The Cicariello-Mahers of the world are cowards. They’re only sincere when floating freely in ideological bubbles. Even when they do step from behind the keyboard to own the intent behind their words, they don masks and use anonymity to hit people with bike locks and escape consequences.

  6. “Students, who now represent something closer to entitled neoliberal clients, now get to decide what empowers them more: studying and coming to class or virtually ‘attending’ their lectures and tutorials through online interfaces ”

    Well, what is that saying? I think it was “The customer is always right.”

    The problem with “markets” is that they make a market out of everything and anything, whether it should be one or not. So suck it up “higher education” – make yourself marketable or face extinction…unless of course there are any other options in how higher education is treated and able to be accessed.

  7. Caligula says

    I don’t really have a problem with a factory-production model for much of higher-ed, as there’s precious little original material to be found in most survey courses and thus little reason why these courses should require large amounts of pedagogical input customized for the individual student.

    In any case, what colleges are selling today are credentials, not education. Did you really think students (or their parents, or taxpayers) were paying all that money purely or primarily for … education?

    Education in just about anything other than those disciplines that require extensive hands-on pracice is widely available at very low cost, to practically everyone on the planet. Education is becoming cheap; it’s educational credentials that remain costly.

    What eventually reforms this runaway system is a replacement of credentials earned by seat-time (aka credit-hours) with credentials earned by passing comprehensive,well-proctored exams. Let students learn however they wish, so long as they can then demonstrate their acquired knowledge. Some might opt for the present pricey full-service campus, but for many a trimmed-down model featuring directed reading (and practicums where useful) plus group discussions and with access (in-person or online) to those with credentials or demonstrated achievement in the field of interest might be entirely sufficient for most.

    Of course, today’s higher-ed. apparat will not go quietly into that good night. And their most fearsome weapon will be their control of accreditation.

    Nonetheless, if a thing can’t go on then it won’t. Charging ever-higher prices for a service offering ever-less educational value is not sustainable.

    And, yes, if you expect a third or more of a country’s population to obtain a college education then the process will inevitably resemble a factory assembly line more than a wide-ranging discourse with a latter-day Socrates in the agora.

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