May 3, 2018


The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities (Julian Vigo, 5/02/18, Quillette)

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.

The Left thought it could use the Humanities to train revolutionaries, but kids just want jobs, so they went elsewhere. College isn't for education, just job certification.

Posted by at May 3, 2018 4:08 AM