It is worth considering why we have institutions of higher education in the first place. Why does anyone go to college? What do you do while you’re there? How does it alter your life’s trajectory? This is not a new topic, and the questions it conjures do not have perfect answers. But we cannot avoid them, given the giant role that higher education plays in America’s economy, politics, and cultural imagination. Not everyone goes to college, it is true. But pretty much everyone has opinions about college.
Onto the field steps Johann N. Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University. What’s the Point of College? is a slim book, and it is briskly styled, urgent, and impassioned. Many of Neem’s core arguments—that the things one studies in college are crucial to a democracy, that college is not mere job prep, that the liberal arts are the beating heart of any meaningful college experience—will be familiar to humanists.
But there are two flaws in Neem’s work. First, while arguing for the “virtues”—his term—of a college education, Neem does not explain in depth how particular classes or pedagogies would cultivate these virtues. Though he is not wrong to valorize disciplines like philosophy and physics, Neem’s argument loses force because it is so abstract.
Second, What’s the Point of College? lacks a theory of politics. Like many reformers, Neem bases his faith in change on an unexamined premise: the capacity of the best ideas to triumph. Moreover, he says little about how you actually get the contemporary university’s leaders to embrace these virtues, even ones that university professors (myself included) cherish.
How do you push legislators and university upper management into doing the opposite of what they’ve been up to since the 1970s? How does anything short of mass action put pressure on them? For these questions, Neem offers only worthy ideas. But ideas alone can’t save higher ed. More than abstract liberal commitments, what’s needed is collective action that unites multiple nonmanagerial stakeholders and is designed to pressure centers of institutional power.
Indeed, as the political scientist Jodi Dean has argued, it is past time that professors see themselves as engaged in a class struggle, a real fight that cannot be won with humanist argumentation and critique alone. This fight requires direct action. It requires things like strikes. It requires a professoriate willing to do politics.
Before questioning his argument, we must understand Neem’s position. For Neem, the liberal arts are the marrow of undergraduate life, and decentering them—in favor of “employable” disciplines like engineering or business—means turning campuses into “curricular food courts” without a coherent purpose. Colleges under such a regime would cater to amorphous student appetites in the most craven, market-oriented way. Worse, a public discourse obsessed with results (with merely the number of degrees conferred by schools) loses sight of what happens during college.
Neem distinguishes his approach from two other ways of thinking about college: the utilitarian view, which “focus[es] on how schools can meet students’ preexisting preferences” and treats them as customers; and the pragmatist view, which “see[s] the past as a burden” and pursues what is supposedly innovative. Instead, Neem stakes out what he calls “virtue ethics,” an idea about why college matters that prizes “the life of the mind” (unfortunately, he trots out that cliché). To think virtue-ethically, for Neem, requires seeing individual intellectual development as crucial to the broader health of a democracy.
Yet he misses an opportunity here. Neem doesn’t flesh out his claim with particular examples of how the actions that students take in college shape them as thinkers and citizens. How exactly does reading Jane Eyre or learning about neurochemistry, for example, create “skilled, conscientious, thoughtful, and profound interpreters of our world”? Neem doesn’t really say; he presumes the reader knows what he means, which is frustrating, even if you do.
Capitalism gorges on forms of knowledge that should be meaningful in and of themselves, colonizing them for its profiteering purposes.
That is a shame, because one of Neem’s sharpest points is his attack on the discourse surrounding “critical thinking.” This concept—the ability to independently locate, evaluate, and create knowledge—is one of the university’s great marketing points. Reputed to appeal to employers, it is, so the story goes, the main cognitive tool one acquires in college.
But Neem points out that “critical thinking” is often erroneously defined in generalized, interchangeable terms. It’s as though critical thinking could be abstracted from the specific contexts in which it is generated, he argues—as though the mental capacities you develop in a biology course are the same as those you employ in a class on modernist film. Actually, Neem makes clear, “there is no such thing as critical thinking in general.”
What is more worrisome for Neem is how critical thinking, no matter how hazily defined, is frequently framed not as a virtue in itself, but as a job skill. It is bad enough, Neem argues, that we unduly focus on this unclear abstraction, let alone that we couple it to mere economic instrumentalism. Such “critical thinking” too easily becomes a tool of capital—explicating “The Waste Land” is only worthwhile if it preps you for a position at Google—which leaves the whole concept deeply problematic.
And so it is capitalism, Neem maintains, that is most poisonous to education. Because capitalism gorges on forms of knowledge that should be meaningful in and of themselves, colonizing them for its profiteering purposes.
Deconstructing the Bush administration’s 2006 Spellings Report, Neem fumes that “according to the report, the purpose of learning is not to gain wisdom, ethics, or insight but to develop intellectual capital or, stated more clearly, to reduce one’s mind to a profit-generating entity that improves one’s own salary while serving the needs of American business.” The report’s arguments rest on a fatuous “narrative of speed,” whereby academic traditions—such as the idea that holding classes in physical space (instead of online) is good—must give way to “disruptive” innovation. Shockingly, this disruption tends to profit corporations.
On campus, Neem’s adversaries—“the neoliberal arts”—are headquartered at the business school. Generally, professors aren’t supposed to target or critique our neighbors on campus. Instead, we are encouraged to agree that all programs and departments are valuable members of the scholastic community. Neem, however, argues persuasively that we should abolish business programs and devote their resources to more meaningful things.
The evidence is on his side. Not only do undergraduates studying business show weaker gains in intellectual skills than students in the sciences or humanities, but a business degree doesn’t even lead to more income. In fact, lifetime earnings for business majors are in line with those of liberal-arts students.
The ideology of business is antithetical to the purpose of college as Neem defines it. The modes of thinking taught in such classrooms are slavishly tied to the central conceit of neoliberal capitalism: that, because accumulating wealth is the sum of all human activity, market logic should rule the world. You don’t study business to examine big questions about life and death, you do it because you want a bigger house.
“The business major,” Neem concludes, “supports those students who want a college degree without a college education.” Today, business is the most popular undergraduate major in the country.
In rejecting market ideology, however, Neem slips toward another extreme. For him, “schools are places where people step aside from the world of need—from the world of business—to engage in reflection.” They are “places apart,” and “undergraduate colleges should not be integrated into the world, even as they prepare students for it.” He deploys architectural metaphors: “We need … higher walls between campuses and ‘the real world’ in order to insulate students and professors from utilitarian and pragmatic pressures.”
But I wonder about how thick that insulation can be—or ever was—given academia’s ties to the likes of the defense industry, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and both major political parties. Further, the idea of somehow retiring from “the real world” seems strange in the era of, say, climate crisis. I teach writing, and I wonder how my students could “engage in reflection” about anything without confronting the supposedly external “world of need.” After all, that’s where we live.
Instead of idealism like Neem’s about a purer form of education, it seems to me that measured openness is better. This does involve keeping out—or ejecting—some elements of the market world (like the neoliberal privatization fetish that has hobbled universities since the 1980s, as Christopher Newfield has demonstrated).
But it also means accepting that a university is always situated within socioeconomic, political, and cultural geographies. This is the vision of the academy that Kathleen Fitzpatrick theorizes in her book Generous Thinking, where she contends that universities must embrace public-facing scholarship and deep, reciprocal community engagement. Hiding behind walls merely postpones collapse.
Oddly, when Neem writes about how neoliberalism has shaped our schools, he uses the future tense, as though these terrible things were just about to happen. “If Americans are not careful,” he warns, “we will soon find that we have fundamentally changed the purposes and goals of collegiate education.” Then, toward the end, he turns optimistic and assures us that the good side will win:
The worst-case scenarios will probably not happen. Traditional undergraduate liberal education will survive. When the fads pass, students will continue to go to college campuses, where they will spend several years of their lives in a residential learning community before going out to seek a job or professional training. Professors, not computers, will remain the primary mediators between knowledge and students. Moreover, since much of the hostility to professors emerged as part of the broader post-1960s culture wars, it is possible that, with changing generations, support for academics and the liberal arts and sciences will revive.
The trouble is that all the bad things are either happening right now or have already occurred. The contemporary higher education landscape—which includes far more community colleges than “residential learning” communities (like those at traditionally depicted, four-year liberal arts colleges)—is distinguished by staggering student debt, collapsing enrollments in the humanities, administrative bloat, a vast expansion of adjunct employment, and harrowing austerity budgets.
That’s not to mention a deepening public hostility toward the very idea of college. Neem’s confidence might be shaken by the work of scholars like Sara Goldrick-Rab (Paying the Price), Benjamin Ginsberg (The Fall of the Faculty), Christopher Newfield (The Great Mistake), Tressie McMillan Cottom (Lower Ed), and Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier (Austerity Blues).
There are villains, and they know what humanities professors like Neem want. They just don’t care.
So how might we halt and reverse these trends? Neem isn’t very helpful here. His conception of politics is muddled, relying on a liberal-reformist narrative according to which calm deliberation leads stakeholders to an agreement about what’s best for an institution.
In his view, “we” simply need to change the way “we” think about higher education. “We must remember what colleges and universities are for,” he declares, “and ensure that those purposes are sustained”; “We still must deepen our commitment to those institutions that cultivate a love of learning in their students”; “We need to reinvest in our research infrastructure so that we can continue to generate insights that will help us make sense of our most pressing public questions.” And so on. “We” is Neem’s favorite pronoun.
But the first-person plural obscures power relationships. “We” fails to name the university’s elites (upper administrators and, in the case of public schools, state legislators) who actually decide what higher ed is for. As such, Neem’s framing makes it hard to establish what went wrong. When we speak of “purposes,” whose are we talking about? Do the people who make decisions about the life of institutions share these purposes?
Referring to the faculty labor crisis, Neem writes of the need for “structural solutions.” And he goes on to argue that “we therefore must prioritize the need for more tenure-track hiring in the liberal arts and sciences.”
As a non-tenure-track professor, I agree. But “we” did not make these decisions. Rather, specific choices made by specific people in specific positions of power created the mess. There are villains, and they know what humanities professors like Neem want. They just don’t care. And “virtues” alone won’t change that.
Wresting control of institutions back from the quasi-corporate managers who run them now necessitates unionization, collective action, and mutual aid at the level of the people who should matter most to any school: students and teachers. Yet Neem says little about this.
At one of the few points where he does mention unions, he admits that “unionization will help” faculty regain power. But he then immediately moves on to “a better alternative,” whereby institutions would somehow be split into more intimate communities that “would educate small batches of students.” Given what we know about class sizes—the smaller, the better—this is tantalizing. But Neem identifies no link between unionization and the possibility of institutions truly focused on undergraduate learning.
Energized faculty and staff unions—as well as a politically engaged student body—will help us get to a place where the liberal arts matter. This would mean allocating resources as though the university really were an intellectual community. It would mean using the money that is currently extracted by management, lifestyle amenities, and big-time sports to, instead, pay teachers fairly, as well as to provide things like food, textbooks, and healthcare free to undergraduates. This would mean reconstituting schools as something like co-ops beholden to students, staff, and professors, not to vice deans who drive Audis.
Such actions are necessary, because Neem gets it wrong: there is no guarantee that proponents of the liberal arts will triumph. Our adversaries have a big head start. And professors have scant control over what the American public thinks about higher education; in fact, negative perceptions are widespread already. It is possible that recentering the liberal arts in higher ed will amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But what choice do we have? College is an enormous presence in American life. And while I find Neem’s defense of the institution to be overly abstract and apolitical, he’s right about one thing: this is a fight worth having.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.