Here it is again. Read it and weep.
Deresiewicz’s piece is not so much brilliant, as strong and well argued, burnished with an irony that turns Deresiewicz’s despair into a reflection of the indescribable sense of loss that he, like many of us, feel at the death of the Academy. I wish I had written it. I have tried to deal with the educational collapse in letters to the editor and still-born op-ed pieces, but have always ended up sputtering incomprehensibly with rage.
Just a few bones to pick:
Deresiewicz is wrong about a career in business not needing an old fashioned liberal education. “The college classroom does or ought to do one thing particularly well, which is to teach you to think analytically,” he says, which is why he believes it is good training for those in the “professions” of “law, medicine, finance, consulting, science, and academia itself,” but not businessmen and businesswomen.
Business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.
Wrong. The organizational skills and interpersonal skills needed in business are management tools, but business is the art of the deal, and that depends on analytic skills.
Business was not always about making as much money as possible. If you look at the tycoons of the Gilded Age and the Edwardian era and the Belle Époque, their object was not to become as rich as possible, but to continue to enlarge their businesses while maintaining a respectable profit.
(Not so true for the Belle Époque. Perhaps the Protestant ethic had to come into play. Johann Buddenbrook ascribed to the British model of puritan capitalism. In America, for sure, there was a great degree of conspicuous consumption. But the acquisitiveness of today’s rich ((of today’s just about everybody, come to think of it)) goes beyond conspicuousness. The peacock display of wealth assuaged the social insecurities of the Gilded Age’s nouveau rich, the Vanderbilts and the Fricks. The 21st century drive to acquire costly goods and expensive experiences is aimed at bolstering one’s good opinion of oneself more than that of others’.)
Lazy-minded reformers make capitalism a scapegoat. Capitalism is an economic system, not a moral system; it looks different in different moral climates. The operating principle of classic capitalism is not accumulation, but growth. To appropriate Deresiewicz’s trick of using the suffix “neo” to stand for “pseudo,” today’s economic system is neo-capitalism.
Deresiewicz hammers at (drives a nail into) the concept of “leadership,” which he identifies as one of the goals of contemporary academia.
The worst thing about “leadership,” the notion that society should be run by highly trained elites, is that it has usurped the place of “citizenship,” the notion that society should be run by everyone together. Not coincidentally, citizenship—the creation of an informed populace for the sake of maintaining a free society, a self-governing society—was long the guiding principle of education in the United States. To escape from neoliberal education, we must escape from neoliberalism. If that sounds impossible, bear in mind that neoliberalism itself would have sounded impossible as recently as the 1970s. As late as 1976, the prospect of a Reagan presidency was played for laughs on network television.
Although at the beginning of his piece, Deresiewicz says that the four slogans he encountered while teaching “at an elite liberal-arts college,” leadership, service, integrity and creativity, are “open to whatever interpretation the reader cares to project on them,” he makes sure to skewer them all. For example, he says that for colleges integrity “means nothing more than not cheating.”
He may be taking the four concepts more seriously than their intent, which is simply to attract students and the parents of students (for whom the idea of their kids becoming “leaders” is particularly attractive); they are nothing more than buzzwords worked out in PR workshops, the equivalent of “it tastes good and it's good for you.” But, to return to my opening metaphor, in anatomizing these buzzwords Deresiewicz is nailing down the perimeters, so the academic apologists cannot escape.
Deresiewicz’s references to Thatcherism and Reaganism make me wonder if he believes that someone, some group, some cabal, some political faction, is to blame for our descent into mindless consumerism. I am not sure to what degree he believes that Reagan and Thatcher were evil, instead of simply wrong.
Reagan, or rather Reaganites, were able to impose free-market economic philosophy on Washington in the 1980’s. Maybe they would have approved, maybe not, but they could not have foreseen and did not conspire to bring about a global financial plutocracy dominated by, in a wonderful phrase I read recently, Davos Man. (Let me see if I can find it for you.)
We are in the grip of historical forces, you and I and Davos Man. Greed is a basic element of our culture; it is not a political ideology. Even Thatcher, who was far more responsible than was hapless Reagan for the destruction of liberal values, could not have foreseen a world in which Europe would defend the interests of Goldman Sachs over those of a sovereign European state.
Deresiewicz ends his essay on a note of optimism, but it's a hollow one. He clearly has little hope, but he, with or without the encouragement of his editor, must have felt that there must be some resolution in the coda beyond hand-wringing despair.
Yes, things will change. They always do. The Occupy movement was a fetal spasm. But it can take a long time. Feudalism – which is the closest economic system to our own, except ours is not based on real estate but, as in Gogol’s Russia, on souls, on captured consumers – lasted six centuries.