Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Higher Education, the Humanities and the Neoliberal Agenda

A good friend of mine in the academic world reported recently that he has been cut back to a session lecturer with only two courses per semester. He is looking for ways to make up the difference in lost income, but it is clearly a huge disruption in his life. It will be challenging and I hope the best for him, but this is by now getting to be a pretty old story in the academic world, especially in the humanities.

This is the new world order, the way that the bean counters of the neo-liberal ruling classes have ordained that everyone should live -- in as much insecurity as possible. I myself experienced something similar after I finished my doctorate and was unable to find work in the academic field in Canada or the U.S.A. One can only wait so long, and the universities have long discovered that tenure and tenure track positions are more expensive than temps and grad students. When I was 43, I finally recognized that I did not have the time to wait; I had to make a decision and luckily I found a source of income that was able to keep me and my family going for a few years.

It is easy to see the ostensible logic for all the cutting back. It is always money, isn't it? I had already seen the process at work at SOAS in London, where the Indology department was slowly but surely being gutted and an influx of Japanese money financing a huge increase in Japanese studies and programs catering to Japanese students. This was during that country's economic ascendancy. Who knows what is happening now?

Something similar had happened at the University of Toronto, and when I got there in 1992 for my post-doc, the once flourishing Sanskrit department built under A. K. Warder had been liquidated and the one remaining Sanskrit scholar was hidden away in the East Asia department for some reason.

But economics is only one way of assessing value. There seems to be a more insidious agenda, one that devalues the humanities as a whole. Today, I was sent a link to an article about the situation of humanities education in Pakistan, by Dr Syed Nomanul Haq. The subheadline was, "There does not exist a single histor­ian under the age of 80 now in Pakist­an who can read Sanskr­it."

Pakistan is a country of more than 100 million people, which moreover was the probable home of Panini, the great grammarian of the Sanskrit language. The country itself is a part of the cultural environment of South Asia, but the reason for this disinterest in Pakistan's non-Islamic past does not arise out of religious narrow-mindedness, or at least not primarily, not according to Haq. After all, he says that even knowledge of Persian, Arabic, even of Urdu, is being lost. He places the blame on "scientism."

What is scientism as opposed to science? It is a malady that has three types of interrelated essential symptoms: logical, epistemological and political. Logically, scientism presupposes that all disciplines of human knowledge, when sufficiently purified and developed, will reduce to the ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics or biology. This reductionism thereby denies any logical independence to the humanities.

The second type of symptom of scientism is related to the first — it creates an epistemological hierarchy wherein the ‘hard’ sciences are found at the highest rungs and humanistic studies somewhere at the lowest. An art critic or a historian or a sociologist must emulate and strive to approximate as closely as possible biologists and physicists and astronomers — but not vice versa.
The political purpose, or what we refer to as the neo-liberal agenda, is the prioritizing and valuing of science, which Haq says has been conflated with technology, as an ostensible solution to economic self-sufficiency. What is now becoming evident, however, is the real cost.

What the cost is to a developing nation like Pakistan or India, where the problem -- being global -- is also being felt is one thing. The root of this cultural disease, which is neoliberalism, is the reduction of all things to dollar signs. It is the mad and destructive philosophy of economic development that has taken over the world and is in every respect undermining human society as a collective project. Its prophets are Ayn Rand, Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and Alan Greenspan; its ethos dominates the current direction of world history. It is an ethos that falsely promotes the myth of the individual and "rugged individualism" in order to undermine any sense of communal solidarity of human for human. It is the humanities that awaken this awareness.

This is a topic that concerns scholars of the humanities everywhere. The topic coincidentally is under discussion in the Religions in South Asia group of the American Academy of Religion, where one professor after another chimes in to lament the situation at their university. One comment ascerbically painted a picture of the effects of the university-as-business corporation model as follows:

As academic standards continued to fall at the private institution where I taught, in tandem with the steady rise of tuition thereby accommodating the super-rich, as the numbers of middle class origin students had already declined to the point of no way affordable, the business model took over. Result: Too many students viewed the college as a mere playground to pass the time for four years (or less), and us faculty as their employees, expected to entertain them and indulge their whims.

Well-earned non-passes had become occasions for threatened parental lawsuits. Deans supported full tuition payers against proven plagiarism. The institution, albeit with savvy window dressing wrapped in ponderous educational abstractions, became a department store for high-priced degrees.

Depressing that this model has achieved such a vast distribution...
So education becomes a privilege reserved for the 1%, for whom it is in fact an irrelevancy. The comedian George Carlin, in his most famous rant, pinpoints the underlying raison d'etre for all these development:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That's against their interests.... They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it...

Perhaps more than anyone at the moment writing specifically about this subject is Henry Giroux, professor of communication at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His newest book is called The Neoliberal War on Higher Education, in which he says in a scholarly way and with plentiful footnotes pretty much exactly what George Carlin says more directly and with much saltier language.

Critical learning has been replaced with mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge or authority. Pedagogies that unsettle common sense, make power accountable, and connect classroom knowledge to larger civic issues have become dangerous at all levels of schooling. This method of rote pedagogy, heavily enforced by mainstream educational reformists, is, as Zygmunt Bauman notes, "the most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for [robbing] it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense." These radical reformers are also attempting to restructure how higher education is organized. In doing so, they are putting in place modes of governance that mimic corporate structures by increasing the power of administrators at the expense of faculty, reducing faculty to a mostly temporary and low-wage workforce, and reducing students to customers—ripe for being trained for low-skilled jobs and at-risk for incurring large student loans.
The entire linked article is worth going through.

Someone may wonder why I am writing about this. The fact is that religion and the humanities are connected. "The scientific study of religion" means that we hold that the religious urge is an integral and natural part of the human psyche. It is universal throughout humanity, even though in modern society it is increasingly hidden as its grosser manifestations become an embarrassment to refined intelligence.

But it is a part of the human phenomenon, and psychology, anthropology, sociology and all the rest of the humanities are engaged in shedding light on the purpose, role and form of religion. Indeed, the humanities are concerned more than anything about the meaning and quality of life, which is the primary purpose of religion. Although it is generally understood that economics are a part of life, it is as true now as it ever was that money is NOT everything. And it is the humanities that teaches us to find those values.

It could even be claimed that religion is the one subject that englobes all the humanities. We give the name "God" to that which is the ultimate value or purpose of life, the puruṣārtha. Those who are adherents of particular religious faiths need to support the multipronged approach to the humanities, especially those who have pretensions to "spiritual science" if they wish to see their own religion survive.

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