‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire’ — W.B. Yeats.
Over the last few years, the Arts at Canterbury University–and at Universities around the country–have been increasingly under threat. Funding is constantly reducing, student numbers across a number of disciplines are dropping and staff and departments have been put through cyclical witch-hunts. Constant revolution, in the Trotskyite tradition, is here to stay.
The Arts have been caught in the perfect storm: neoliberalism. In New Zealand history, the great neoliberal revolution of the 80′s and early 90′s signalled the end of full employment and caused wealth inequality to skyrocket. Underclasses were entrenched while huge profits were made by a few, mostly those who oversaw the selling off of our nation’s inheritance, such as Alan Gibbs. Speaking in the excellent television series Revolution, which covers the this period, Douglas Myers notes that prior to 1984 ‘one of the proudest boasts within [Lion Nathan's] annual report was how many people we employed’. Even Universities, now, only talk about their bottom line.
Neoliberalism is somewhat difficult to discuss: we are heavily enmeshed within its ideological progeny, caught up in its naturalized mythologies, its entangled web of discourses. We now take consumer choice, market orientation and the autonomy of the individual as our basic economic and social models. The individual is not to be impinged upon by government: the up to 66% tax rates of pre-1984 New Zealand are no longer acceptable mainly because we no longer believe that the collective is to be protected over the individual. ‘The masses’ is now a dirty term: there is no collective, and we have no duty to it. People should be free to choose, we are told; yet we are never reminded that for many in our society choice itself is out of reach. ‘Choice’ is not value-neutral. Ultimately, the modality of neoliberalism matches its political orientation: by decontextualizing the larger structures that limit each ‘individual’, such as class, gender and race, and mythologizing the individual instead as a self-empowering, self-creating unit of social production, structural inequality is mystified, represented instead as a natural outcome of a totally fair, meritocratic system.
If that all seems a bit heavy, let me explain. Such decontextualization implicitly affirms that hard work will take one anywhere, something I discussed in this post. However, unless we believe that Maori women from poor families are naturally less hard-working than white males from rich families, then we can’t use the ‘hard work’ model of material success to account for the difference in each group’s material position. Yet despite the clear mismatch between sociological models and the ideology, many still believe that the individual creates their own success outside of any external influences. This is why taxes are cut and beneficiaries are left to fend for themselves–if they wanted success enough, apparently, then they’d go out and get a job and stop being a drain on our tax revenue.
The impact of neoliberalism is wideranging. The language of the market is applied to everything, until economic performance, thinly applied, displaces all other metrics for success. Even in government agencies, profit/loss is the central concern. District Health Boards are charged with making a profit, as are Universities. The problem is that this model is completely inapplicable: a state funded University, one suspects, should be a little more concerned with education–something almost completely intangible–rather than making an immediate economic ‘return’ for the government.
This is central to Neoliberal ideology: what gets measured gets done. Unfortunately, in this frighteningly limited imagination, that which doesn’t get measured does not exist. Why give adequate funding to the Arts when there is no tangible (i.e. economic) outcome?
This is the problem the Arts face: how can its ‘success’ be measured in a way that will make sense to the Neolibs and thus secure funding? One could map the economic success of graduates with different qualifications, something which is done regularly. By most measures, those with a BA have higher expectations than those with a BCom, and similar to those with a BSc and slightly lower than those with an LLB. However, in this model the Arts will always lose, because Arts’ research doesn’t and never will bring in the same money as patented drugs or new chemical compositions. Thus while its graduates earn money outside the University, its graduates inside do not earn for the University to anything like the same degree.
This limited metric–the purely economic–is precisely what the Arts contest. Where Neoliberalism encourages us to codify everything, the Arts deal with that which is less directly material. When the Arts are reified the result is absurdity: the Publications Based Research Funding system, through which University Departments are assigned funding, rates research according to the researcher’s quantity of ‘outcomes’. This may fit the Sciences, where a paper is imagined as a discrete contribution to knowledge, but how does that fit the Arts? How can one simply rate a gender reading of Milton or a high-theory reading of Pynchon? The simple answer is that you can’t, not without doing violence to the research itself. Despite the language of University Management, Arts research is not a knowledge factory: you can’t go out and collect History, Literature or Art, put your research into a sack and then come home and count it.
The simple fact is that there is no metric, at least in the Neoliberal imagination, that is able to measure the ‘success’ of an Arts degree. For the defenders of the Arts, it is that which cannot be measured which make the Arts so valuable. The Arts give people the ability and opportunity to write and think. Where facts change, one’s ability to interpret and synthesize them doesn’t. Education, in this imagination, is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail, and the measure of a good education–and a good teacher–is what skills remain in the student twenty years after completing the degree, not what facts are known at the end of a course.
These defences of the Arts may be laudable by themselves, but in the end they are academically irrelevant and don’t secure funding or prestige in an era of diminishing returns. This is why the School of Arts at the University of Canterbury is now running a BA Internship programme. It makes the BA applicable to the ‘real world’. (I put scare quotes around ‘real world’ basically because it doesn’t exist, at least not as the phrase is popularly used: no one, not corporates, University Management, nor factory workers have a monopoly upon reality. It always evades the structures we attempt to lay over top of it.) In the ‘real world’ we are able to engage with the discourses that are little by little destroying our disciplines. We are beginning to realize that deconstructing the discourses from the outside is doing little to help us at the moment; the only way to secure the future of the Arts is to inhabit the discourses from the inside, demonstrating that the skills of a BA are indispensible. Make no mistake, the internship is a form of consciousness raising, the remaking of a grassroots movement, one student, one organization at a time.