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a critique of the neoliberal university and its capacity to produce public intellectuals

calamityschild's picture

“Reading, writing, arithmetic

Are the branches of the learning tree

But without the roots of love everyday girl

Your education ain't complete”

-The Jackson 5, “ABC”

In my last meeting with Professor Joel Schlosser, I opened up to him about the concerns I was having about my education here at Bryn Mawr. I admitted that, after having spent a year immersed in academia, I was feeling like college wasn’t “for me.” At the time, I had a lot of difficulty naming precisely the source of my frustration, but I knew the basis of it was that I did not feel like I was being taken care of in the collegiate environment. I did not know exactly why I was at Bryn Mawr, or even why I was in college. My need to feel taken care of was deeper than the need for hand-holding, it was the feeling of alienation within academia and the feeling of living on a schedule dictated by forces I couldn’t control. Joel knows me well, and he tried to assuage my dissatisfaction by sending me an essay he wrote to tackle the question, “What is college for?” The first time I read it, I did not have the vocabulary to think that deeply about it. However, I have spent time reading and thinking about the purpose of higher education since then, and I have developed some of my own ideas as well. In this essay, I will use Joel’s essay alongside pedagogical texts to argue that the neoliberalization of higher education has had a profound effect on its students, their senses of agency, and their commitment to mutual aid. Furthermore, I argue that these effects have been raced in that the influence of free market values have changed the “the role of the school in political struggle,” especially in anti-racist activism on college campuses (Leonardo, 50).

Neoliberalism can be defined as “a modern politico-economic theory favouring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditure on social services, et cetera” (Collings English Dictionary). It is deeply related to capitalism. The neoliberalization of the university, then, can be thought of as the impact of the neoliberal ideology as an ethic on the structure, purpose, and the very notion of higher education.

Is a college education the gateway to a prosperous life? What kind of prosperity are we compelled to seek anyway?

Many of us are drawn to higher education not just for the experience of being at college, but for the long-term benefits of a college degree. One of the purposes of the university is ostensibly to prepare students for entry into the workforce and the life that follows after graduation. Joel writes, “My liberal education set forth an idea of a holistic education that I could not fully actualize during my years in college but one that nonetheless became a guiding paradigm for my life that followed” (Schlosser, 1). A college education thus becomes a lens, a worldview to see each other with. It “provides the resources for discernment, the tools for navigating the complexities and complications of life,” complexities that extend beyond the professional sphere and into the public (Schlosser, 2). We can see that higher education has the capacity to change the minds and hearts of students.  

The university must equip students with the resources to enter the larger community outside of college successfully. Throughout my college application process and during my time at Bryn Mawr, I have been bombarded with emails and advertisements that promote the success stories of alumni. These alumni are people who have left the college and since then have earned for themselves a name, a title, a salary, and prestige. Through the fortunes of their alumni, colleges are sending the message to students that their education will mean something to the rest of the world. Quoting Leona Okakok, Bryan Brayboy suggests that “education is about the preparation of individuals for the world in which they are going to live” (Brayboy, 401). But what preparation does college provide for life in an oppressive world? On Bryn Mawr’s school website, it is said that “Bryn Mawr prepares passionate learners for lives of purposeful action” (“Bryn Mawr’s Promise”). As a school whose reputation is tethered to wealth, whiteness, achievement, and increasingly to social justice, Bryn Mawr is faced with the challenge of developing students who are at once sensitive to existing structures of oppression, but also poised to succeed within those structures. To unpack the meaning of success in this context is to examine society’s neoliberal structure and the trajectory of a neoliberally productive life, which I argue stands in contradiction to a critical life.

"The University is a critical institution or it is nothing." - Stuart Hall

Education is a process that produces citizens, people who are able to accept or reject governance. It could be said that part of education’s mission is the teaching of governability. It plays a crucial role in developing participants in democracy, by furnishing students with the educational background to be critical citizens. Lessons are imbued with the teaching of values, and a school committed to a vigorous democracy would ostensibly yield “citizens with the skills of critical judgment necessary for a successful democracy” (Schlosser, 1). However, the marketization of higher education has prioritized capitalistic values over public values, and has undermined the aspects of citizenship that are committed to flourishing collectivity and civic engagement, favoring instead a self-interested life. 

This is exaggerated in universities, where faculty and students alike are driven by profit-making incentives. I have frequently felt like my success post-graduation will be predicated on whether or not I made all the right income-generating choices in college. I feel this pressure every time I hand in an assignment, receive a grade, or apply to a program; it always feels like I am being forced to compete for recognition. It is disheartening to believe that socioeconomic security and the respect of my institution is dependent on how much I achieve within their elitist parameters of academic achievement. Bryn Mawr might not be the welcoming place to all students, but I still feel a pathological desire to succeed at this institution. The competitive nature of capitalism, translated into the realm of academia via the neoliberal university, produces relations in which students are estranged from one another. One imagine the detriment to on-campus activism that has resulted from this estrangement.

“We are so perverted by an education which from infancy seeks to kill in us the spirit of revolt, and to develop that of submission to authority; we are so perverted by this existence under the ferrule of a law, which regulates every event in life — our birth, our education, our development, our love, our friendship — that, if this state of things continues, we shall lose all initiative, all habit of thinking for ourselves.”

–Peter Kropotkin

Neoliberal discourses of colorblindness, multiculturalism, and diversity align with the  “contradictory nature of education, wherein schools most often oppress and marginalize while they maintain the potential to emancipate and empower” (Yosso, 74). Initiatives to diversify the student body of a university have failed to undo legacies of white supremacy, only to reproduce racism in covert or socially acceptable ways. Students of color are still pressured to appeal to elite, white standards in the academy, prescribing to the standards of the privileged groups of society-which are essentially white standards as well. For example, racism is coded into academic writing norms that dictate the ways students can express themselves. In academic settings, nonstandard English is looked down upon, and students of different linguistic backgrounds often face discrimination if they do not conform to the standards of their university. In their paper Undoing Appropriateness, Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa name the ways that “appropriateness-based discourses...reify the racial status quo” by “marginaliz[ing]the linguistic practices of language-minoritized communities” (Flores and Rosa, 154). These discourses are “premised on the false assumption that modifying the linguistic practices of racialized speaking subjects is key to eliminating racial hierarchies” and they are embedded in linguistic practices and norms that privilege the white speaker and listener (Flores and Rosa, 154). For students of color, their avenues of speech and self-expression are literally limited by “raciolinguistic ideologies that conflate certain racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency unrelated to any objective linguistic practices” (Flores and Rosa, 150). These raciolinguistic ideologies disadvantage students of color, even those who prescribe to the highest standards of Standard English, simply because of their racial identity. 

“Deploying language that undermines the commonplaces of respectable speech threatens the authority of the elite, who have the power to name as ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil’ those elements of our rhetoric that impose meaning (or cliché) on the various struggles of the world.” -Steven Salaita

In a different sense, students of color are also limited in their academic speech by the politics of respectability and standards of civility dictated by the privileged powers that be. Academic spaces have “adopted codes of civility in order to protect a diversity of viewpoints and insure that campus conversations honored academic freedom” (The New Yorker). However, the tone-policing that goes on in classroom discussions for the sake of civility suppresses the academic speech of those who do not comply with civil norms. On Bryn Mawr’s campus and elsewhere, the tone-policing of Black students, non-Black students of color, and other marginalized students is a pervasive problem that is supported by the university’s codes of civility. Last year at Bryn Mawr, Black students who used posters in public spaces to speak out against institutional antiblack racism were reprimanded for their failure to comply with school posting policy. It was one of many instances where anti-racist activism was derailed over a technicality, disqualifying student activists from protesting because their methods were not deemed to be civil enough. The poster situation is evidence of what students of color already know, which is that academic spaces are not open to all forms of dissent, especially if it challenges the authority of a privileged group. Student activism is seen as a disturbance if it is carried out by racialized bodies and subsequently shut down. Ironically, colleges across the country pride themselves on the presence of activism on their campuses.

What kind of education encourages us to take care of one another?  

At the very foundation of citizenship is the citizen’s belief in their own personal agency. The same could be said for activism. Once the conditions of everyday and intellectual life erode that sense of agency, the potential for revolutionary action is rendered impossible. Neoliberalism has done a disservice to the academy’s “potential to emancipate and empower,” and thus, to its potential for activism and an unfettered civic life (Yosso, 74). Put another way with a view to racial oppression, “the continuation of racist outcomes comes as no surprise and is regarded as an unremarkable consequence of a system over which no individual exercises much control” (Leonardo, 17).

The neoliberal university is not facilitative to an engaged, critical society. Higher education has been recruited to perpetuate capitalist systems of value, hegemonic values, ways of knowing that sustain whiteness as normative, and empty promises of inclusion. The purpose of higher education has undergone an identity crisis in the wake of neoliberalism: how can a university be at once the site of activism against the status quo and a hierarchical, hegemonic institution? This tension within academia is a challenge faced by students everywhere.

“There is much dignity in being a student.”

-Compañera Lucia, Zapatista education promoter

A critique of the neoliberal university opens up possibilities for resistance. Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that “everything—the way we live our lives, the redefinition of prosperity and equal opportunity, and the meaning and relevance of our history as a people” is at stake (Ladson-Billings, 108). As students, we are not wrong to protest the corporatization of higher education. We are not wrong to seek a life of collectivity and a more inclusive democracy. It is essential that anti-racist students are critical of the market-based approaches that are being applied to higher education, since “wherever capitalism threatens democratic relations, it also comes with racialized justifications” (Leonardo, 51). Student dissatisfaction is the beginning of a movement for an improvement in the quality of education. Joel writes that a college education “initiates a new kind of life: articulacy about one’s preferences; humility about one’s knowledge; understanding of one’s place within a tradition and, in turn, of that tradition’s place within and among other traditions” (Schlosser, 2). College might enable this “life of appreciation,” as Joel puts it, but paradoxically limits access to it due is investment in dominant ideologies. How beautiful it would be for students to enjoy this "life of appreciation" witha renewed commitment to public values, to community, and to each other. The commodification of the university student is an insult to our capacities as agents of change, and the forces of neoliberalization undermine our ability to act in mutual kindness, when mutuality is precisely what we seek in our activism. In the face of neoliberalism and the increasingly corporatized academy, care for the other is an act of defiance. Resistance is the beginning of the creation of alternative, autonomous intellectual spaces that encourage students to exist with dignity and freedom.


Works Cited 

Brayboy, Bryan McKinley Jones. "Culture, Place, and Power: Engaging the Histories and Possibilities of American Indian Education." History of Education Quarterly 54.3 (2014): 395-402. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

"Bryn Mawr's Promise." Bryn Mawr College. N.p., 2016. Web. 08 Oct. 2016. <>.

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014

Flores, Nelson, and Rosa, Jonathan. "Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education." Harvard Educational Review 85.2 (2015): 149-71. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. 

Hsu, Hua. "The Civility Wars." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 01 Dec. 2014. Web. 09 Oct. 2016. <>.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “‘Stakes Is High’: Educating New Century Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 82.2 (2013): 105-10. Print.

Leonardo, Zeus. Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education. New York: Teachers College, 2015. Print. 

Schlosser, Joel. “What is college for?” 2014. Web. 

Tara J. Yosso (2005) Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, Race Ethnicity and Education, 8:1, 69-91. Print.