Personal reflections on Educating Human Capital and the Liberal Arts Student’s Time to Outrage!
by Catharina Wahls
“We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance. No, I do not mean the global economic crisis….I mean a crisis that goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government: a world-wide crisis in education.”
- Martha Nussbaum – Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
‘‘The idea of a well-educated public, one that has the knowledge and understanding to participate thoughtfully in public concerns and problems, has gone the way of public goods and provisions themselves. As it dispenses with the very idea of the public, neoliberal rationality recognizes and interpellates the subject only as human capital, making incoherent the idea of an engaged and educated citizen.’’
- Wendy Brown – Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution
If our faculties have one thing in common, then it is the red threat of a good marketing strategy. While the white, blue and orange colours and the little two branded triangles indoctrinatingly smile at us throughout the walk of the extra mile; our program webpages remind us of the incredible score they reached in the Keuzegids rankings. At the same time, student ambassadors become our friends before we enter this tiny town, and we become our best branded selves as soon as we leave the introduction days fully equipped with hip tote bags and bike lamps.
However, when taking a closer look, the faculties stand heterogeneously and partially divided under the shiny umbrella of such scenarios. Especially in terms of formal, but also hidden curriculums, the city of Maastricht encompasses programs that could be interesting for trendy anarchists, conformists and capitalists, at the same time. All privileged, but silently spread out in different locations. While business schools are said to act ‘‘as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science’’; one could argue that some of our liberal arts faculties mistake their education as catwalk opportunities, mere self-exploration, or concept flea markets for shopping concepts, that can soon become market- or likeable; be it feminism, or social inclusion (Parker, 2018).
In the latter programs, we see the teachings of theories fading and being replaced by ‘valuable’ skills courses, that ought to make us more employable. Increasing pressures add a selection procedure beyond the intake period. Only the ones resistant to pressure, cognitive dissonance and high workload, will be awarded, not only with learning how to trick and drug your way out of burn-outs, but also with a shiny degree. Meanwhile, having become the entrepreneurs of our own lives, it appears that if you do not manage to cope with these pressures, you must have made the wrong choices, or applied the wrong strategy. Furthermore, our electives are said to merge in order to achieve a more coherent and employable profile. However, the growing demand of job training, as pointed out by Brown, ‘‘marginalizes, when it does not eliminate, academic practices and undertakings at variance with market norms or understood to block market flows’’, to her these include tenure, academic freedom, but also courses and teaching oriented toward developing capacities of reflection and insight.
Dear liberal arts students, the future does not look too bright. Dwelling back to the 1960s and its appreciation for the liberal arts education, especially in the American context, this seems to be part of history. At least for those who see the current state as an end of such. As Brown points out,
‘‘Today, this status for liberal arts education is eroding from all sides: cultural values spurn it, capital is not interested in it, debt-burdened families anxious about the future do not demand it, neoliberal rationality does not index it, and of course, the state does not longer invest in it’’ (Brown, 2015, p. 181)
But why does liberal arts education matter? I hope you agree, when saying that we can feel it ourselves, how the liberal arts education has changed our perceptions and rearranged our priorities. For those, who by now have joined the rhetoric of Chomsky, and do not believe in higher education anymore, have maybe at least been able to understand some of his references due to your now distrusted liberal arts education. While of course, also in these programs, we can strive for more diversity, Non-Western approaches and more inclusive education, we have to acknowledge that we have learned to be aware of this need. Brown reminds us that in the past ‘‘a liberal arts education, was necessary for free men to know and engage with the world sufficiently to exercise that freedom’’. Or, for the woke twenty-somethings among us, in the words of David Foster Wallace, ‘‘a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about, quote ‘teaching you how to think’‘’ (Wallace, 2005). Simultaneously, Brown’s note on today’s liberal arts programs appears shockingly accurate when thinking of our liberal arts stereotypes. The humanities and interpretative social sciences ‘‘are not conceived as providing the various capacities required for democratic citizenship. Rather, they are conceived as something for individuals to imbibe like chocolate, practice like yoga, or utilize like engineering. They are presumed to inhabit a land apart from the material world, the practical world, the world of power, profit and achievement’’ (Brown, 2015, p. 188). However, the arts matter as they problematize the kind of neo-liberal and utilitarian logic, that is the prioritization of economic usefulness and the means of measuring it (Belfiore, 2015). Think for a minute, do we really want this logic to swallow up every sphere of our lives?
But beyond the fact that these capacities might be in danger, we might want to ask ourselves to what extent we learn these capacities right here, right now. How much critical thinking is left, if the text becomes the problem, and the workload is just high enough that there is no time to reflect whether we agree or disagree. It feels that at times PBL turns against itself, and ends up being transmission-absorption either way. Despite that, why would you even raise your voice, if you have never learned to do so, and if transmission-absorption and job-training education is what you are used to, and what you have learned to strive for. Consider the idea that we shape ourselves within the constraints of the discourses we live in. In Maastricht, only the few of us who end up with a nice multi-faculty flat or friends group, and flat mates they actually sometimes communicate with, might be saved from dismissing the importance of the different disciplines, or the interplay of such, we spend so much time engaging with. But it seems too easy, and not to be our responsibility, to debate with each other, to inform each other and to have complementary conversations. At the same time, it feels out of reach to have an actual say in terms of course contents, while a ‘for the sake of feedback’ argumentation, does not offer us enough direct return, nor incentive, to invest 5 minutes into filling out course evaluation forms. And why would you even know of alternative approaches that could be included in such, if neither former schools nor your social environment facilitated this way of thinking.
As soon as we break out of our Banditos Garden and our UCM courtyard, it appears that people are not as woke as you thought they are. It seems like escaping back into the bright and enlightened Maastricht bubble can and is the only option of feeling comfortable again, while achieving even greater personal growth. But, let’s not fall into bad faith. It is our responsibility to make sure that the education we believe in continues to exist for the sake of it. It is our responsibility to learn from beyond the walls of our faculty, and it is our responsibility to break down the barriers that keep us from having conversations; be it, even the smaller things like fighting stupid faculty stereotypes, bureaucratic nightmares hindering interfaculty exchange, or breaking out of our liberal arts reinforcement bubbles to have small chit chats.
Belfiore, E. (2015). “Impact”, “Value’ and “Bad economics”: Making sense of
the problem of value in the arts and humanities. Arts and Humanities in
Higher Education: An International Journal of Theory, Research and
Practice, 14(1), 95-110.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos : Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution (First edition. ed.,
Near futures). New York: Zone Books.
Parker, M. (2018). Why we should bulldoze the business school. In: The Guardian. Retrieved
Wallace, D.F. (2005). This Is Water. Retrieved from (30.04.2018):