The Death of Critical Enquiry: Is Neoliberalism Ushering in an Age of Conformity?

What the increasing dismissal of the Humanities implies about our culture at large. 

 

Recently in Japan, humanities departments have come under attack. The government has ordered universities to discontinue these departments and shift focus, instead, towards fields with ‘greater utilitarian values’. Not only does this seem alarming, but it is indicative of a trend that is picking up world-over. India is not very far behind either, with recent talks of transferring ownership of the Film & Television Institute of India to Bollywood serving as one of the indicators that our government does not see fruits in supporting pursuits in critical thinking. “The truth is that governments no longer care for the arts and humanities,” writes Vijaya Singh, a student at FTII for The Wire, “The shift from a knowledge-based education system to a skill-based one in the last twenty years has led to a steady decline in the state’s patronage of all those disciplines that are not utility oriented.”

This shift in stance is visible as well in the UK, with renowned British literary theorist Terry Eagleton writing for The Chronicle,

 

The British state continues to distribute grants to its universities for science, medicine, engineering, and the like, but it has ceased to hand out any significant resources to the arts. It is not out of the question that if this does not change, whole humanities departments will be closed down in the coming years. If English departments survive at all, it may simply be to teach business students the use of the semicolon.

[…] If the humanities in Britain are withering on the branch, it is largely because they are being driven by capitalist forces while being simultaneously starved of resources.

 

What does this shift fundamentally say about us as humanity? And what does it say about the changing purposes of education? American author William Deresiewicz observes the changes made in University mission statements in the US. He says education formerly addressed students as “complete human beings rather than as future specialists”, attempting to enable them “to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul”. In his essay ‘The Neoliberal Arts’, he eloquently points out how the goals of higher education today are being modified to “meet the state’s workforce needs”. This ideology determines the value of knowledge in terms of its utility, “reducing all values to money values,” with the “purpose of education in a neoliberal age [being] to produce producers,” he writes.

Producers can, in turn, fuel a consumerist culture. This is heralding the “death of the university as centres of critique”, writes Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge, with the role of academia changing “to [service] the status quo, rather than challenging it, in the name of justice, human flourishing, freedom of thought or alternative visions of the future”.

But how is it that this reality has come to be?

 

chaplin-modern-times-2

Charles Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’, 1936

 

Dreams of a ‘brave new world’

“From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world. Modernity understood itself as a condition of constant flux, which is why the historical mission of youth in every generation was to imagine a way forward to a different state. But moving forward to a different state is a possibility that neoliberalism excludes. Neoliberalism believes that we have reached the end of history, a steady-state condition of free-market capitalism that will go on replicating itself forever. The historical mission of youth is no longer desirable or even conceivable. The world is not going to change, so we don’t need young people to imagine how it might.”

– William Deresiewicz, ‘The Neoliberal Arts’, Harper’s Magazine (Sept 2015)

 

Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman likewise explains how “capitalists built palaces” that we are left to run today, in his talk at Leeds University in 2012. And we are seduced into running them, he explains, by ‘soft power’ – via means of temptation, instead of coercion – via money, prestige and job security. So that we keep fuelling the great capitalistic engine – one that has left the world on the brink of another destruction – a climactic one.

Is it all that inconceivable that another cyclic wave of disorder may well be on its way? And if this is so, how do we know that we will morally perform any better today than we did back in the early 1900’s? Will our youth, if called upon in such a time, be capable of imagining alternate realities? Or have we been too conditioned by existing systems to really know our ‘selves’ – to be able to think of our roles in the world meaningfully – minus the red plastic bottles and useless paraphernalia of today’s ‘extreme civilisation’?

 

huxley-orwell-amusing-ourselves-to-death2

Huxley v/s Orwell, by Stuart McMillen

 

Feeding the crocodile

Has industrialised conformity made us a spineless generation? Science journalist Michael Hanlon explains the risk-aversive nature of today’s youth:

 

Risk played its part [ ] in the massive postwar shift in social attitudes. People, often the young, were prepared to take huge, physical risks to right the wrongs of the pre-war world. The early civil rights and anti-war protestors faced tear gas or worse. In the 1960s, feminists faced social ridicule, media approbation and violent hostility. Now… social progress all too often finds itself down the blind alleyways of political correctness. Student bodies used to be hotbeds of dissent, even revolution; today’s hyper-conformist youth is more interested in the policing of language and stifling debate when it counters the prevailing wisdom.

 

While this propensity for conformity is attributable in large part to the standardized education processes and the vapid influences of mainstream media and entertainment, British writer George Monbiot additionally attributes the loss of the most promising students of our time to the workings of a ‘corporate cult’. Sent off by a misguided older generation on a ‘kamikaze mission’ to clean the cogs of the machine from within, “people who had spent [ ] years laying out exultant visions of a better world, of the grand creative projects they planned, of adventure and discovery, [are] suddenly sucked into the mouths of corporations dangling money like angler fish,” describes Monbiot.

High university fees are equally culpable for propelling the brightest minds to seek out lucrative salaries in order to clear off debts. Many of these students take up roles that they never quite envisioned themselves pursuing, with earnest intentions to leave in a few years’ time. But crucial formative years are replaced, in the process, by a culture that often encourages overworked hours, leaving little room for aimless reflection. “Two years of this and many are lost for life,” fumes Monbiot.

While it would be premature to dismiss the corporate culture as being responsible for annihilating the dreams of students, with alternatives to capitalism often having proved to be even more unsound, the manner in which its influence is feeding into the processes of learning and thinking is crucial to assess today, perhaps more than ever.

 

Invoking uncertainty

There is hope though. And it lies in the honing of the creative spirit. And it is in an education that cultivates the spirit of critical enquiry, that this spirit lies. Takamitsu Sawa, President of Shiga University, makes a convincing case for this as he opposes the Japanese government’s decision to cut support for humanities courses. He argues that a majority of Japanese leaders today are those who were trained to develop “superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders”, by means of education in the humanities and social sciences.

This is the critical spirit that captured public imagination during the historic events of May ’68 in Paris. Spearheaded by poets, musicians, film-buffs and students, the movement brought the entire capitalist machinery of France to a halt. It “‘provoked an entire society to a rare assessment – call it an examination of conscience, if you will – of its fundamental values”, writes American educator Peter Steinfels. The event was testimony to the risk-taking, probing and often entirely irrational nature of critical, creative thought. Today, while structural overhauls are taking place in Universities world-over, that “valorize neoliberal corporate clichés of ‘disruption’ over critical discourse, intellection and deep studio practice”, as described by a student of the USC Master of Fine Arts programme who has chosen to drop out along with all her batchmates; Deresiewicz and others foretell that a ‘renewed era’ of student engagement seems to be flickering on the horizon.

 

juene

Translation: “Be young and shut up”. A poster by L’Atelier Populaire, the artistic collective born of the occupation of the Paris School of beaux-arts, during May of 1968.

 

Creativity leverages the power of uncertainty. We require the kind of creativity that gives itself time to reflect and explore in an open-ended manner; the kind of creativity that is a friend of solitude, as opposed to that rampant plague of groupthink. And solitude is a friend of the self. And from this place of feeling must emerge the coming reality. It is vital that we uphold universities as powerhouses of critical thought; and prevent them, at all costs, from falling into the trappings of an age that would have them conform.

Albert Einstein’s words, written for the New York Times as far back as in 1952, still ring true for today:

“It it not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.”

 

This article was originally published in Tatvamasi (‘Entropy’, 5th edition, Oct ’15), a newsletter by the students of the School of Architecture, CEPT University – a compilation that’s well worth a read. The article has been modified from the original. 

 

References:

1. Sawa, Takamitsu. “Humanities Under Attack.” The Japan Times, 23 August 2015.
2. Singh, Vijaya. “The FTII Crisis and the Death of Imagination.” The Wire, 17 July 2015.
3. Eagleton, Terry. “The Slow Death of the University.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 April 2015.
4. Deresiewicz, William. “The Neoliberal Arts.” Harper’s Magazine, September 2015.
5. Reay, Diane. “From Academic Freedom to Academic Capitalism.” Discover Society, 15 February 2014.
6. Bauman, Zygmunt. Lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University, 2012.
7. Hanlon, Michael. “The Golden Quarter.” Aeon Magazine, 3 December 2014.
8.  Monbiot, George. “How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates.” The Guardian, 3rd June 2015.
9. “What’s the Alternative? Capitalism is not perfect but its better than other systems.” The Economist, 15th August 2015. 

10. Steinfels, Peter. “Paris, May 1968: The revolution that never was.” The New York Times, 10 May 2008.
11. Beaufils, Julie; Duenas, Sid; Egerton-Warburton, George; Fake, Edie; Davis Fisher, Lauren; Relvas, Lee; Schafer, Ellen. “Entire USC MFA First-Year Class is Dropping Out.” Art & Education, May 2015.
12. Gavroche, Julius. “Amidst the Art of May 68: L’Atelier Populaire de Paris.” Autonomies, 25 Feb 2014. 

About the Author

Niharika Sanyal