I hadn’t meant to take such a long break from the blog. I will try to write weekly, at least, since there is so much here in France to write about. But for the time being, one more in a series of posts on neoliberalism…
Davydd Greenwood, an economic anthropologist turned action researcher from Cornell University, has been writing critically about social science and higher education for at least a decade now. In a long stream of essays, often co-written with his collaborator Morten Levin, he has castigated the “inhumanities and inaction research” that he views as leading to socially useless theoreticism, commented on Taylorist organization in university structures, and argued for far more extensive social research on academic institutions.
In a recent essay that I want to talk about here, Greenwood takes up what he calls “Bologna in America,” which is to say, the belated importation of neoliberal reform projects into U.S. higher education. His primary symptom of this phenomenon is a 2006 report put out by George W. Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, which advocated a program of newly imposed “accountability” regimes for American universities, a “reform through imposed free market discipline.” Greenwood is quick to point out the contradiction inherent in the “imposition” of a “free” market:
“If [these would-be reformers] actually believed in the free market, this would make no sense. After all, by free market logic, institutions that are not accountable, not transparent, not affordable and not efficient would simply be put to death by the market itself. However, in their world view, the free market always needs the oversight of authoritative policymakers who know better than the consumers and producers what they all need” (22).
Now oversight, as the Spellings Report imagines it, consists of several things: a changing regulatory and financial structure, a new push towards policy integration of university and economy, and particularly a new regime of “transparency and accountability.” Accountability here largely involves instituting “output controls” instead of “input controls” — “output controls” meaning measuring the results of an education (demonstrable skills afterwards, job placement) rather than the inputs (money spent, teacher qualifications, or whatever). Greenwood notes correctly that no reasonable person could be against understanding the results of educational processes and trying to improve them, but as he points out, the Spellings Report’s version of accountability involves reducing educational processes to a set of uniform, quantifiable outcomes.
The report itself complains that it is currently hard to measure “how much students learn in college or whether they learn more at one college than another” (Spellings 13). This presupposes, first of all, that learning can be adequately quantified: they think of learning as what linguists call a mass noun, like a heap of grain, susceptible to indefinite expansion and to precise measurements of how much learning has happened. And second, clearly, it presupposes that all college educations are fully, quantitatively comparable to each other.
There is an elaborate fantasy later in the report (20f) about creating a massive national “consumer database” that will track every student and thus make possible centralized data on all universities’ aggregate student outcomes. Though Greenwood notes that this proposal raised major privacy concerns, it strikes me that a great deal of useful critical sociology could probably be derived from such a database. At any rate, the system was never implemented (we will return below to the outcome of the Report). But it’s interesting to see that this database, clearly envisioned as the primary means of evaluating higher education, would have contained a massive tacit bias towards a uniform, fully quantified, and almost entirely vocationally-oriented view of higher education. For educational “results” for the Spellings Report largely means “job placement.” That’s a sign in itself of the ongoing integration of higher education into the American system of labor and class reproduction, but also a symptom of not-entirely-satisfied corporate desires for universities to produce an even more “prepared” workforce.
This integration with the American labor system is one that permeates the very definition of learning employed by the report writers. When they explain what they think is wrong with American college education, they say that college students are “not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplaces” (3). What they mean by “critical” thinking is itself interesting here. Needless to say, what’s optimistically called critical thinking in the American liberal arts is often not allowed in work contexts, since critique can threaten or at least annoy the established order. The famous cartoon about the grad student deconstructing the Mexican takeout menu might end in dismissal if it was the cook doing the deconstructing.
But “critical” is a word seldom used in the abstract in this report. “Critical” occurs nine times in the report’s text; by my count, they mention abstract “critical thinking” skills twice, but seven times they talk about education being critical to something else. Certain disciplines are “critical to global competitiveness” (15); the workforce has certain “critical needs” (24); literacy is “critical to the nation’s continued success in the global economy” (26). Criticality here, in short, means economic instrumentality; what’s critical is what’s economically useful. (I note in passing that, while many humanists would instinctively critique such a definition of critique, any defense of non-economic critical values is likely to have its own economic conditions of possibility which quite often are concealed in the defense of supposedly higher values. Humanists still get a paycheck.)
Greenwood suggests that there is practically nothing about actual teaching in the report, but I’m struck myself, reading it over, by its emphasis at certain moments on an incredibly crude and low-level set of educational indicators. These consist essentially of performance on standardized tests of literacy and math. According to the report, as of 2003, 31% of college graduates were “proficient in prose literacy,” 25% in “document literacy,” and 31% in “quantitative literacy” (13). I have no idea what these numbers really measure or how accurate they are, but they certainly sound astoundingly low in every case. Less than one in three students is apparently “literate” in any of these senses. As my friend Mike Bishop might put it, whatever you may think about schooling reform, people ought to leave being able to read… but as Greenwood points out, it is equally mistaken to blame schools and universities for lacking or unequally distributed resources that are controlled by broader sociopolitical forces. Just to take Connecticut where I grew up as one example, variation between schools seemed to be largely the product of wealth differences between different towns coupled to a mainly town-based system of school funding. Apparently there was no effective mechanism for equalizing wealth (or cultural capital) disparities between towns. Any purely internal reform of education is misguided in such circumstances (a point which has been stressed by critics of No Child Left Behind).
At any rate, the Spellings Report cited bad test scores for basic skills and lack of (quantified, standardized) accountability mechanisms, in addition to a bad financial aid system, unequal access, impossibly rising costs, and lacking “innovation,” as the main areas needing remedy in American higher ed. In fact, however, the Spellings Report didn’t directly yield major reforms. As Greenwood notes, the major difference from a European Minister of Education is the U.S. Secretary of Education has no power to directly control American universities. Her powers mainly cover the dispersal of federal funds and the control of accreditation agencies for colleges and universities. Spellings had no power to directly reform university practice.
Moreover, the Spellings Report got in trouble over its proposal for an invasively comprehensive national student database, and, Greenwood tells us, Spellings’ policy approach was eventually repudiated by a prominent Republican, Lamar Alexandar. However, and this I think is one of Greenwood’s most provocative claims, the apparent defeat of the Spellings initiative did not spell the end of neoliberal “accountability” reform in American universities. In Greenwood’s view:
“Everywhere in the U.S. now, every institution and all accreditation bodies are scrambling to create output controls, systems of evaluation and accountability like the ones envisioned by the Commission… [there is] a clear recognition that gestures in the direction of quality assurance and accreditation are necessary to keep the federal government from taking even more authoritarian actions to control higher education. The higher education press I read and the people I talk to make it clear that they believe the only strategy is to keep your head down and appear to play along. The secretary’s agenda for output measures and input controls is therefore not being implemented by executive fiat but by universities’ doing it to themselves” (24).
As if in a ruse of neoliberal history, the decentralization of American higher education, which provides such a powerful defense against the kind of top-down neoliberal reforms that have happened in other nations, makes it possible to adopt a seemingly “voluntary” route to neoliberal audit cultures. Greenwood’s reading is pessimistic, as if resistance was almost impossible. “There can be very little question,” he comments, “that accountability and increased transparency in higher education are with us now for the long haul” (34). To be sure, he is no historical determinist; it is just that, in his analysis, the faculty with the power to mobilize for better reforms are currently too ignorant and passive to do so.
I would have liked, at this point, to have seen some consideration of the various activist movements that do currently exist within the university. Unionization efforts and labor movements among adjunct faculty and graduate students are one major new phenomenon, perhaps the most pragmatic; there have been social justice campaigns on campus over the years, though not always successful ones; currently there seems to be significant mobilization in the University of California. I would have liked also to have seen more substantial ethnographic examination of the internal life of American university administrators and of the new forms of auditing that they are supposedly all implementing. Greenwood, who has occupied various administrative tasks, would be well placed to conduct a real ethnographic study of that world, which is inaccessible to younger researchers like myself.
And I am not sure of his blanket statement that “all” American universities are voluntarily implementing audit controls on the scale of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency. I would like to hear more empirical details about this, since it isn’t something I have seen personally in the US. For the time being, however, it crosses my mind that there is a broader lesson to be drawn here about neoliberalism. While Greenwood writes as if neoliberal reform was almost inevitable, we could equally view the political ups and downs of the Spellings Report as a sign that the political results we call neoliberal are somewhat historically unstable, contingently instituted, dependent on the shifting balance of political forces in a given national moment, and, far from an inevitable historical force, necessarily mediated by a local political process.
It might thus be better to think of neoliberalism as being more like a pliable, portable political ideology than a concrete set of historical results, though that would then raise the problem of the relation between the ideology and the remarkably uniform set of neoliberal institutional reforms around the world. But let’s give Greenwood the last word. “To me,” he says, “the ‘neo’ in neo-liberalism seems out of place. What is taking place is a reversion to commodity capitalism, with its pseudo-free markets, state and elite control and the imposition of discipline on non-state actors whose survival requires them to accept subjection to a particular version of the market that serves elite interests. Rather than ‘neo’, it marks a return to the end of Robber Baron capitalism” (7). Which seems a thought worth pondering.