Short-term economic goals are insufficient to justify sacrificing longer-term goals, and there is agreement among economists and sociologists that job creation in the short run is no longer on the agenda of those in power. So the problem of higher education is not merely one of meeting short-term job needs in a way that can be made compatible with the long-run goals of education. It is that those goals are also no longer on the agenda; and the defense of the humanities is certainly as weak thus far as Iain Pears says it is. But these are not sufficient reasons to abandon a principled defense of them in the interest of an education oriented toward job training for a jobs market that is unreliable, volatile, and unpredictable.
The problems with the current attempts to defend the humanities are clear: (1) The opposition seems to be uncompromising in its attempt to institute a core curriculum devoted to strict monetary values, themselves no longer economically rational; (2) the defense is weakened by a sense of having to justify the humanities according to commercial practices and methods of evaluation that are not consistent with the sort of education we need; and (3) there is a willingness to accept a marginalization of the humanities and social sciences to a status that cannot stand up in the long run to the imposition of commercial policies and methods of evaluation.
We have to recognize, once again, that the notion of a “core education” is identical with the thought of the humanities and social sciences, for the simple reason that those are the disciplines that take the idea of a society of common needs and resources seriously, and that project a view of human life that is consistent with our best ideas about morality, decency, and the possibility of living together in a sustainable future.
This is the core that embodies the sort of critical thinking we most need in the face of domestic reaction and corporate globalization, the sort of critical thinking that brings us back to basic moral and practical problems and undergirds them with the institutional support that is necessary if they are to play the role that needs to be reaffirmed and continually defended in our society.
The brutality of right-wing and neoliberal projects is now apparent beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt. For better or for worse, with all the warts so often mentioned as reasons to discount the role of the humanities, the sort of critical thinking now essential for a viable democratic society needs to be defended far more directly and in more detail than it has been, at least in the popular and professional media. The issues are undoubtedly complex and vexing, and it is always tempting to give in to power in the hope that the powerful will move from their pronounced absolutist position to something more flexible and responsive to societal needs. But there is, at present, no reason to assume that they will do so, and this suggests what is difficult for many academics to admit, namely the necessity of a politics that goes along with the reasoned defense of the humanities and social sciences as essential to a decent, liberal, constitutional democracy.
There are, of course, precedents for intellectuals engaging in politics relevant to such ends, though they are, for understandable though unfortunate, reasons, few and far between. Perhaps we can start by re-acquainting ourselves with the critical literature on ideology, civil society, and democracy, the history and philosophy of the idea of higher education, and the history of the ascendance and effects of neoliberal ideology. When The New York Times once noted that commercial values have, for the first time in history, virtually taken over American culture, it was sounding an alarm and not merely making an observation.
How should we respond to the challenge posed by this sudden emergence, by historical standards, of a right that is, as visibly as ever, reactionary across the board? What can be done to reinstate the idea of “education” in discussions of education, and what sort of politics is necessary for such a reinstatement?