The value of a good university education extends well beyond the benefits of a tertiary qualification and the ‘return on investment’ it provides. University education – especially in the liberal arts – helps students grow into more enlightened, critical, and ethical citizens, and so constitutes a public good.
The problem with those two sentences is not that they are false – I don’t think they are – but that they sound platitudinous. After all, it’s easy to find people with a stake in higher education – from students to academics, from politicians to university administrators, and activists on the Left and the Right – making statements roughly like these, and often with wildly divergent ideas and goals in mind (assuming they have anything in mind). Yet, as we face a global onslaught against higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular – represented in Australia by Christopher Pyne’s recent attempts to reform our university system – it is crucial that we give ideas like these purchase.
Consider the most powerful arguments in favour of defunding and deregulating the tertiary sector. A university education is an investment in oneself: it grants new skills and knowledge that will make one more employable and boost one’s future earnings. As such, it is only fair that students are made to bear all or most of the costs of this investment, because they will be the beneficiaries. Further, look at the statistics regarding those accessing higher education: the privileged are overrepresented across our universities, and in our relatively prestigious Group of Eight institutions in particular. Large-scale public funding for the tertiary sector is not only unfair, in that it forces taxpayers who do not go to university to foot the bill for those who do, it is also inequitable, because the underprivileged are overrepresented in the former. And perhaps the case for the liberal arts is even less defensible, for at least dentists, engineers, nurses, and other students taking professional degrees will contribute practical knowledge and concrete skills to the workforce after graduation. How can we justify subsidising elite indulgences like the study of art history, philosophy, literature, or classics? There are ways of meeting such arguments head on, but they require showing just what is lost when higher education is reduced in these ways to the status of a private good.
At this juncture, the Left has often turned to notions of critical thinking and pedagogy. On this kind of account, higher education is not simply about gaining the knowledge and qualifications needed to be employable, or about creating skilled labour. It is also about producing engaged, informed, reflective citizens who are able to question political claims, unmask privilege, denounce injustice, and speak truth to power. This is certainly an important part of the function of higher education, when considered as something more than a commodity. But rather ironically, these are the values that have motivated some of the most withering attacks on the liberal arts to emerge over the past three or four decades. For just as neoliberalism began to take hold around the world, academics in the humanities and Leftist intellectuals began subjecting the principles underpinning the liberal arts to critiques of their own.
Some of the ideas that were unmasked as ploys for the extension of privilege and power in this period included the following: that certain literary, philosophical, religious, and other texts are so valuable that they are worthy of intensive study (and the corollary: that some texts are not so valuable); that it is legitimate to treat such texts as belonging to a canon; and hence that there is legitimacy in the academic disciplines established to study that canon. Amongst other things, these critiques – or rather, self-critiques, for that is what they were – have demonstrated that the establishment of a canon is not politically neutral, but reflects vested interests; in this case, the interests of the white men whose work was canonised, the white men who had the privilege of dedicating their lives to the study of their texts, and the white men whose experiences of the world were thus enshrined as hegemonic. But there is an important sense in which such critiques have also left us disarmed, as now we struggle to articulate what it is about the liberal arts that is worth preserving, and why we should resist the further commodification of higher education. In fact there are rhetorical confluences between the self-critiques carried out and undergone in the humanities and the neoliberal arguments I raised earlier: they regard the university as the province of the privileged, the values that have traditionally underpinned the liberal arts as covertly elitist, the pursuit of truth and knowledge as an extension of self-interest.
Social conservatives – one thinks here of figures like Allan Bloom – have no problem articulating a defence of the value of liberal education: implicitly affirming the idea that it is the province of a white male elite, they baldly reject Left critiques of the canon in the name of ‘academic standards’ and universal morality. But what might the Left wrest back from them? Perhaps there are ways of repurposing the idea that higher education is about the cultivation of character and virtue through study. We might look to the German Bildung tradition for inspiration here, or perhaps to the moral perfectionism of American philosophers like Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond. Drawing on these traditions may help us connect critical pedagogy to the irreducibly normative project of self-formation through education: to demonstrate that the ideals at the heart of the liberal arts will not be undermined but should instead be deepened by self-critique. This would be the very opposite of nostalgic.
Teaching philosophy at a regional university has shown me that less privileged students are often more enthusiastic than their comparatively jaded counterparts at Go8 institutions in embracing the utopian promise at work in the study of texts and ideas. It has led me to wonder if the notion of free inquiry underpinning the liberal arts could form part of the basis of a radical opposition to the kinds of economic coercion that structure everyday life in market-based societies. After all, the careful study of texts and ideas both requires and consolidates values that are anathema to the ruling material and ideological forces of such societies: the pursuit of goals that have no obvious instrumental upshot; the need to slow down and take one’s time; communal inquiry and collegiality; the insistence that there is more to life than mere survival; resistance to philistinism.
In September’s frontbench reshuffle, Pyne lost the education portfolio, and it was announced last week that the Turnbull government will not reintroduce his higher education bill to Parliament this year. That is good news for Australian universities in the immediate term, but we should be prepared to keep defending higher education. The LNP could be gearing up to go to the next election seeking a mandate for other neoliberal reforms, or it may just be biding its time, hoping to introduce the same legislation to a more amenable parliament after the election. Now may also be an opportunity for the Left to move to the offensive, strengthening the case for publically funded, accessible, free university education. Though there are compelling economic arguments to make in response to neoliberal attacks and in favour of a well-funded public university system, we should not baulk at moving beyond them, finding ways to articulate the inherent value and public good of higher education. When the charge of elitism is raised against us, perhaps we can reply by agreeing that we are indeed elitist, but that the point of universities should be to make elitism available to everybody.