Thursday, September 22, 2016

NEOLIBERAL ATTACKS ON LIBERAL ARTS



Harry Targ

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded in 1973 as an organization of corporations, lobby groups, and state-level politicians to propose and implement model legislation; prioritizing such policies as promoting educational vouchers and charter schools,  limiting the role of trade unions, restricting environmental regulations, and instituting voter identification rules. ALEC has established think tanks that address key issues of public policy. One such issue is education.

In a 2015 article Lindsey Russell, an ALEC Director of its Education Task Force, wrote an essay entitled “STEM-Will It Replace Liberal Arts?” In it he reports Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that from 2012-2022 there will be a growth of 13 percent in the STEM related workforce. As a result he poses the question reflected in the title of his article. His answer, although he does not say so directly is a qualified “yes.” He does quote a Forbes magazine article that suggests that STEM graduates need “critical thinking skills” to pursue their careers. These skills, the article asserts, along with those in communication, are what a Liberal Arts education can provide. In an interesting statement he says about STEM and Liberal Arts:

“STEM is the present and the future, and STEM related fields are projected to grow by more than 1 million by the year 2022….Liberal arts education may seem irrelevant today, but it is necessary if America’s youth are to become successful members of today’s STEM-dominated workforce.”

Although not central to discussions of the vitality of the Liberal Arts, it is useful to briefly refer to empirical studies that challenge the claims about preparing for a “STEM-dominated workforce.” Such analyses, and claims about shortcomings in the American educational system, go back as far as the Soviet Union’s launch of “Sputnik.” In a 2014 volume,  Michael Teitelbaum, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Princeton Press, challenges the periodically claimed view that the United States is somehow “falling behind” in the production of scientists and engineers and in his words, “advocates of these shortage claims have had a nearly open field in politics and the media.”

In addition, in a Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, May 2015 article entitled, “STEM Crisis or STEM Surplus? Yes and Yes,” the following conclusions are reached based upon extensive research:

*Since the STEM labor market is heterogeneous there are both shortages and surpluses depending on the particular job market segment.”

*In the academic market there are noticeable oversupplies of Ph.D’s.

*In some sectors of government jobs there are shortages of STEM-trained personnel.

*In the private sector, there are some areas were STEM demand is great, in others where oversupply exists.

*Levels of oversupply or demand vary by geographic region.

Perhaps the most damning statement on STEM training and jobs comes from an article by Hal Salzman, “STEM Grads Are at a Loss,” US News, Sept. 15, 2014 declaring that: “All credible research finds the same evidence about the STEM workforce: ample supply, stagnant wages and, by 
industry accounts, thousands of applicants for any advertised job.”

While debates continue about the need to prioritize STEM in the educational process, a more important discussion should involve the substance and role of what usually is called “the Liberal Arts.” Should Liberal Arts be seen as only a training ground for honing critical thinking and communications skills or does the Liberal Arts project go much deeper? Henry Giroux, Professor of English and Cultural Studies, McMasters University, Hamilton, Ontario, posted an essay he called “Neoliberal Savagery and the Assault on Higher Education as a Democratic Public Space,” on September 15, 2016. His language is vivid, his critique of the growing connections between higher education and market needs is controversial. His grounding of the political pressures to change and marginalize Liberal Arts has its roots in the theory and practice of neoliberal ideology, an ideology based on a crude vision of markets, privatization of public institutions, and the reduction of all of social life to commodification.

The most important element of Giroux’s essay is the proposition that the university represents a “public trust” and a “social good.”  He correctly claims that in an age of concentrating media and a profusion of unsubstantiated information on the internet, the university remains a scarce and valuable venue for exposing young people to rich, complicated discourse and analysis of society—past, present, and future. Giroux’s words ring true in this regard as he claims the university is  “a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the civic imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility, and the struggle for justice.” Giroux quotes Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis: “how will we form the next generation of intellectuals and politicians if young people will never have an opportunity to experience what a non-vulgar, non-pragmatic, non-instrumental university is like?”

The tasks cultural theorists such as Giroux lay out do not, or should not, suggest that only through Liberal Arts can the civic responsibility of the university be maintained. But, and this is critical, Liberal Arts should be seen as a necessary partner in the intellectual development of each and every student and should be a vibrant contributor to the larger society in which we live.

Conceiving of Liberal Arts as just a limited instrumentality of a narrowly defined STEM education, as advocates such as the ALEC spokesperson above suggests, demeans not only the fundamental importance of the Liberal Arts for pursuing an intellectually curious and socially just society but the basic project of higher education.