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.