The Neoliberal Assumption of Educational Programming

I read this essay at the Wisconsin Sociological Association Meeting in La Crosse, Wisconsin the morning. 

One of the chief objectives of the neoliberal program to devolve the public sphere and weaken democratic institutions and traditions is the elimination of progressive and creative educational programming committed to cultivating “thought leaders” concerned with broad community interests.

Imparting the skills of identifying complex problems and bringing into focus their many and interconnecting dimensions by teaching people to think across disciplines and consider multiple perspectives, as well as encouraging faculty, staff, students, and graduates to work with communities to develop comprehensive solutions to those problems is too disruptive to the corporate command of society.

Pushing back against the ideological notion that solutions to the societal problems of joblessness, crime, and addiction are to be found in personal adjustment and adaptation, and instead teaching people to see collective circumstances and undemocratic power as barriers to autonomy and well-being, problem-focused programming promotes an engaged and vigorous public life, fuel for the democratic movements that challenge the hegemony of the corporate bureaucratic control.

In contrast to classical liberal and social democratic conceptions of education, neoliberal and conservative forces seek to transfer the commonwealth function of public institutions to technocratic machinery governed by business and administrative elites, a narrow and specialized bureaucratic framework generating fragmented and siloed knowledge for the benefit of the aristocracy of capital.

Neoliberal “reformers” envision education as a network of business platforms with interchangeable and exclusive program codes that homogenize and commandeer expertise to stamp out workers for employment in ever more rationalized systems.

The neoliberal tendency is not just about profit maximization. Entrenching bureaucratic rationalization fuels the growth of authoritarian control. Bureaucratic state capitalism has little tolerance for democracy except as a symbolic exercise in manufacturing consent.

The steps being undertaken to affect this transformation are seen in, among other things:

  • the assault on faculty (or shared) governance, tenure, and academic freedom;
  • efforts to undermine educator prestige (teacher bashing) and waging war on public teachers unions;
  • aggressive intervention of business class representatives in the decision-making process of educational institutions;
  • taking, in part or in whole, control over programming and pedagogical method and format away from faculty (for example in textbook selection committees);
  • the homogenization and interchangeability of programming and the manufacture of distinctiveness in signature programs tailored to business and business-serving governmental ends;
  • the reduction of general education to cultural literacy and skills development;
  • the shifting of the costs of education from the taxpayer to students and their families;
  • the cooptation and grooming of members of the professoriate and academic staff to carry out the neoliberal agenda on the ground.

The last bullet point is the consequence of the effect of neoliberal reform, but its existence moves the agenda forward. By substituting the needs of the community with the needs of business dressed up as community interests, neoliberalism cultivates a different type of academic: the entrepreneurial-minded operative drawn into circumscribed associations and professions tied to and subservient to and uncritical of elite power. Deferential to corporate power, the entrepreneurial academic, uncontroversial and adept at making small talk, stands down his principles for the sake institutional advancement and personal enrichment.

As neoliberal logic and practice invade and occupy our social space, its emergent subjectivity threatens to colonize the lifeworld of the academic, separating individuals from the group and assimilating them in projects that undermine the university’s historic mission: to impart and transform knowledge for the benefit of the commonwealth. Resistance to the forces of neoliberal requires critical praxis and solidarity work. Unfortunately, life training in the capitalist values of hierarchy and obedience prepare many individuals for alienation from their peers and cooptation by neoliberal forces.

This is not to say that the work of the administrator cannot be for the good of the community. Many of us have counted on allies in administration. But power tends to select those who advance its goals and filter out those who resist them. The question of who is in power remains a relevant one. Indeed, this is why faculty governance is so crucial to the preservation of the university as an institution for the public good and not an instrument of corporate power.


Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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