The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities

The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities

Julian Vigo
Julian Vigo
9 min read

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 Yorker, Matt 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 Times, Jim 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.

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Julian Vigo

Julian Vigo is a freelance writer, journalist, and filmmaker. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015).