College Worth Fighting For

tags: neoliberalism, higher education, austerity, academic labor

Ryan Boyd lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the writing program at the University of Southern California.

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? 

Read entire article at Public Books

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