Bill Deresiewicz in Harpers develops a must-read account of the perils and pitfalls of the corporatization of modern education. He begins with a truly insightful close reading of one college’s mission statement and corporate branding. But Deresiewicz’s analysis goes deeper, setting the contemporary college within an ongoing cultural movement in which the line dividing youth from adult is increasingly blurred if not eliminated. “Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults.
For the young, modernity means–or meant–something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. 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. All we need them to do, as Rothman rightly suggests, is to run faster and faster, so that by the time they finish college, they can make the leap into the rat race.” Hannah Arendt also understood education as that path from youth to adulthood, one that depended upon a clear understanding of the boundaries separating the immature from the mature. Education is conservative, at least at first in Arendt’s telling. It introduces them to the world into which they are born–the literal meaning of “to educate” is “to lead in.” Education is non-political. It is the way in which responsible adults teach young students to love the world into which they are born. There is, however, a second aspect of education for Arendt: it is revolutionary. By leading young people into the world, educators embrace the new and the possibility of revolutionary change because the world is always made anew by future generations. A liberal arts education, therefore, ought to teach students about the world as it is and prepare them to judge and act to conserve, improve, and re-imagine that world. Deresiewicz offers a similar account that is well worth reading. It is also worth noting that he will be a NEH/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Lecturer at Bard in October 2016.