A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Can Philosophy Survive the Neoliberal Academy?

Analyzing the situation of philosophy after the neoliberal redefinition of education

by Brandon AbsherMarch 26, 2019

This piece was originally published at the APA Blog.

In March 2018, the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point (UWSP) announced that it would be eliminating thirteen majors. In its statement, the university justified these sweeping cuts by referring to “fiscal challenges” that had resulted in a $4.5 million deficit over two years and declining enrollment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the liberal arts and social sciences were decidedly over-represented among the departments selected for closure. Philosophy was initially among them. As of this writing, the philosophy department, along with most others, has been removed from the slate of programs to be cut and it appears that there will no longer be layoffs. Still, this reprieve can hardly be reassuring.

To understand this turn of events in Wisconsin, it is important to recognize that the state has been in the vanguard of the neoliberal restructuring of the university since at least the election of Scott Walker to the governorship in 2010. When I talk about the “neoliberal restructuring of the university,” I am pointing to a number of changes in the funding, organization, and conception of higher education both in the United States and around the world. Neoliberalism describes an ideological project to use state power to establish competitive markets in all aspects of life and thereby advance individual liberty and encourage entrepreneurship. Political theorist Wendy Brown has described the ascendance of neoliberalism as a “stealth revolution” that has advanced a “governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life and construes the human itself exclusively as homo oeconomicus” (176). As applied to higher education, neoliberalism has meant widespread and extreme cuts in state funding. Alongside this, it has resulted in a shift in common sense so that education is now widely viewed as a private consumer good and students and their families as consumers. Within this marketplace, colleges and universities are supposed to compete for tuition dollars, as students and their families are imagined as shrewd investors looking to increase their “human capital.” Simultaneously, nations are thought to compete with one another – particularly for jobs – such that investment in education is supposed to ensure “global competitiveness.” This changed neoliberal understanding of the university, it seems clear, is the basic logic behind the devastating closures and proposed layoffs at UWSP.

To get a sense of what all this means for philosophy, it is worth more closely examining some of the reasoning that was used at UWSP. There were two primary considerations offered in the decision to eliminate particular programs. First, departments with low enrollments were targeted. Second, departments with majors that do not provide “clear career pathways.” Of course, these rationales are connected: Presumably, departments have low enrollments due to the fact that their majors do not provide “clear career pathways.” Notably, though, this concern did not apply in the case of philosophy; the department boasted more than 100 majors at the time they were marked for closure, very near, if not more than, the number at the flagship university in Madison. Despite these numbers, two further reasons were cited to philosophy faculty to justify closing their well-enrolled program. Namely, most of their students had other majors as well and those who majored in philosophy tended not to declare it until later on in their undergraduate careers (as we often say – philosophy majors are made, not born). Ultimately, the program was not itself drawing students to UWSP and was not therefore enhancing the “competitiveness” of the institution in its attempt to maintain enrollment. In an early draft of its “Point Forward” proposal and again in an interview with Provost Greg Summers in The Atlantic, it was made clear that even increased funding or an improved financial situation probably would not avert the cuts. After all, there are “opportunity costs” to funding any program; the costs of “investing” in one major would have to be weighed against the potential benefits of “investing” in others. In short, just like their potential students, college administrators must now consider their “return on investment” (ROI) as they seek out “market share” in a global competition for students and their tuition dollars. Perhaps this is why, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 651 departments in foreign languages in the United States were closed in the past three years.

There is, sadly, much for philosophers to worry about in this situation. Obviously, all of us but the most privileged should be concerned about our own job security and that of our colleagues. Further, we should be troubled by the winnowing of the definition of education so that it is now tailored to the narrowly utilitarian end of “meeting workforce needs.” This narrowing is especially unsettling if we believe, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, that humanities education in particular is essential for democracy or, following Henry Giroux, that the university itself should be a democratic public sphere. Likewise, the sudden extinction of foreign languages departments even as the United States becomes increasingly diverse and universities increasingly rely on the enrollment of international students to make up budget deficits is an alarming contradiction. In a “post-truth” era in which white nationalism has a very well-placed megaphone, the political consequences of such devastating curricular changes are undoubtedly disquieting. But I think we must further consider what they mean for the practice of philosophy and the kinds of knowledge it produces. Something of this is hinted at in the “Point Forward” proposal referred to earlier. The authors suggest that traditional liberal arts disciplines should be “reimagined” for “students seeking applied learning to improve their career potential.” They further ask, “Instead of a Philosophy major, can we develop offerings in applied ethics for the next generation of professional leaders?” In contrast to the supposedly staid, boring, and essentially useless hot air of traditional, “pure” philosophy, the neoliberal university demands an exciting “applied” philosophy. This seemingly innocuous and even potentially progressive demand that philosophy be “applied” raises the question, though: What qualifies as “applied” philosophy?

Before I explore this question, let me issue a disclaimer: the criticisms of the concept of “application” as it is used within the neoliberal university that follow should not be seen as suggesting that there is anything particularly wrong with applied philosophy as such, as this is understood by professional philosophers, or with addressing the issues of the day philosophically in publicly accessible forums – as hopefully this very blog post demonstrates by example. In any case, I argue that philosophy is “applied” in the context of the neoliberal university so long as it serves the demands of potential employers and corporations within the new, high-tech global economy. Philosophical ideas that call into question the social values and material practices underwriting this economy and the careers for which students are to be “made ready” are ruled out in advance. Consider, for example, whether the groundbreaking writings of Frantz Fanon are “applied” philosophy. They certainly changed the world, but one can only surmise that their strident critique of colonialism and defense of revolutionary violence is not what the call for “application” is really after. Or again, consider whether Angela Davis’ magisterial theorization of mass incarceration and call for prison abolition is “applied” in the relevant sense. I somehow doubt it. Instead, “applied” philosophy is supposed to accept and attempt to fit into, indeed develop an “ethics” for, a world in which, to quote only one recent statistic in a flood of similarly horrifying news, the world’s richest one percent took home 82% of all wealth produced in 2017, according to Oxfam International. Certainly, philosophy should have a public, even political mission – and one, I would suggest, that serves the interests of the great majority of humanity. Unfortunately, this is anything but what is demanded of philosophy in the neoliberal university under the heading of “application.”

From the inception of Western philosophy, its application has been regarded with fear by those in power. Socrates was executed for impiety and corrupting the youth. If Plato is to be trusted, Socrates was almost recklessly defiant in his public denunciation of the values of Athenian society. As a “gadfly,” he sought not to promote integration into the status quo, but instead what Nietzsche might have called a “transvaluation of values.” Following this inauspicious beginning, philosophy has always had an uneasy relationship with constituted power and prevailing ideology; at times cozying up to tyrants and dictators, at times suffering mightily even in supposed democracies. As departments across the country face similar situations as those at UWSP, we are all confronted with a choice: Will we become “applied” philosophy in the sense desired by the neoliberal university or will we continue, in the untimely legacy of Socrates, to step outside the present and herald a future beyond the contemporary order? We must confront the question of how and in what condition we will survive. As I suggested above, the stakes are high: democratic citizenship, the existence of a robust public sphere, intercultural understanding, the value of truth itself. More than ever, it seems to me, philosophy, in its most ancient sense, is called for.