Don’t you hate how America’s universities have curdled into cesspools of liberal, “politically correct” groupthink? Edward Schlosser (a pseudonym) knows how you feel––and he’s a liberal! In his recent Vox article entitled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” Professor Schlosser explains the problem with higher education. Time was that a professor could rebut student complaints, but now, student complaints are accepted as gospel. This is because kids these days no longer levy complaints based on professors’ actions, but based on how professors affect their emotional states. Since emotional claims can’t be debated, they’re more likely to be taken seriously, and professors are more likely to be penalized. This creates an environment in which professors opt not to teach controversial material for fear of getting student complaints and losing their jobs. The source of this problem? Liberal students have started buying into a “totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice.” It seems that, not content with ruining video games, the SJWs have moved on to academia.
There are a lot of major problems with this article. One problem is that, while Schlosser (artist’s conception to the left) gives plenty of specific examples to support his argument, almost none of them are actually examples of the phenomenon he’s concerned about. For instance, he mentions one professor facing censure for publicly defending student-teacher dating, and another facing censure for allegedly “acting creepy” at conferences. In both of these cases, the backlash against the professors in question came from administrators or other faculty, not from students. Schlosser also mentions the cancellation of an abortion debate at Oxford, and of a performance by a mostly-white Afrobeat band at Hampshire College. In these cases, some of the backlash (emphasis on some) did come from students who held the events made them uncomfortable, but both of these events, like the other two mentioned above, occurred outside of the classroom.
The only relevant example in Schlosser’s article is an anecdote about an adjunct who apparently didn’t get his contract renewed because students complained after he assigned something by Edward Said. Assuming this story is true (and it’s unfortunately plausible), it definitely presents a problem. But the problem can’t be reduced to the “oversimplified identity politics” of “coddled undergrads.”
One of the most frustrating things about Schlosser’s article is how close he comes to identifying the actual issue at hand. He laments the difficulty of the academic job market. He notes with concern that the “student-teacher dynamic” has become increasingly consumerist. He holds that it betrays the purpose of education to treat students as “customers” who are paying for a “positive experience.” He’s absolutely right, but the corporatization of education and increasing instability in academic employment can hardly be blamed on the purportedly misguided views of students. For one thing, college students have always held inconsistent political views based on false information cobbled together from dubious sources. College students have also always been easily offended. Neither of these long-consistent trends can account for relatively recent shifts in university operations. For another thing, pumping students full of “social justice politics” would, by all logic, make them less likely to understand education as a commercial transaction, not to mention make them more sympathetic to the plight of adjunct professors.
If Schlosser is right, and students do increasingly see college as a commercial transaction, it’s probably because, increasingly, that’s what college is. Higher education is a commercial product, and an expensive one at that. Tuition, and by extension student debt, have been steadily rising for decades. Part of this price increase is due to increasing administrative bloat. Part of it is due to consistent cuts and freezes in state funding for higher education. Part of it is due to rising demand for a college education as a way of ensuring future financial security. All three of these factors, which help destabilize the academic job market and drive the commercialization of higher education, are effects of neoliberalism.
We live in a post-industrial, late capitalist, neoliberal hellscape. The only fields experiencing stable growth are low-paying, at-will McJobs at one end and administrative “bullshit jobs” at the other. The bourgeoisie have really begun to own their political emancipation in the past few decades, and they have shifted regulatory schemes accordingly, eroding employee protections and public programs. The natural rate of unemployment shot up a percentage point during the last recession, and we’re lucky it only went up that much. The results of all this? Administrative positions at universities have grown at a far greater rate than tenure-track faculty positions. Many public universities remain woefully underfunded. Faculty and classified staff naturally bear the brunt of any funding cuts. On the demand side, meanwhile, students increasingly, and not unreasonably, understand a college degree as a ticket out of the service industry. It is, in the driest and most clinical terms possible, a service that they purchase in order to build human capital.
All of this is, of course, a very rough sketch of the economic processes at play. My goal isn’t to give a thorough Marxian explanation of the problems facing higher education by any means, but simply to point out that Schlosser is missing an obvious alternate explanation for the issues he raises. It’s plainly ridiculous to blame students for the commercialization of higher education or declining job security of faculty. The problems Schlosser identifies have their roots in economic trends that go far beyond any student’s set of ideological convictions. Here, we can see the greatest absurdity of Schlosser’s argument. For all his handwringing about “oversimplified identity politics,” he engages in precisely that. He identifies concrete economic problems, then points to “liberal students,” a nebulous identity group, as the primary cause. And naturally, the group he picks is a group with little actual power, economic or otherwise. These “liberal students” are just kids, burdened with debt, faced with the increasingly impossible task of finding a stable career, and Schlosser is kicking them when they’re down, wrongly blaming them for all his colleagues’ misfortunes. For all the effort he put into disguising his identity, you’d think he might feel safe enough take a potshot at administration.
Epilogue: In a recent response to this post, my pal Stephen mentioned The Author Formerly Known as Schlosser’s more economically conscious follow-ups to his Vox piece. Apparently, the Vox editors were quite liberal (oh-ho!) in tweaking the piece to focus most explicitly on liberal students. This actually makes a lot of sense considering the unusually complex mental gymnastics it takes to agree with the essay’s apparent argument of “political correctness ruined the academic job market.” That said, I think the Vox piece resonated so profoundly and so negatively among many leftists (myself included) because, editing shenanigans aside, it sounds remarkably similar to actual arguments that we hear on a regular basis. As my comrade Patrick puts it:
I’ve seen commentators do this exact same thing with primary and secondary education as well. They lament grade inflation and dumb kids/parents and all sorts of problems at elementary and high schools directly related to systemic underfunding and commercialization and then… advocate for something like charter schools and more consumer choice for parents in picking schools.
Systemic, economic problems with education in the United States are too easily and too regularly pinned on students, parents, teachers, or other select groups who usually have little actual power in the situation and, by themselves, hardly constitute the entire problem.