Social Text 22.2 (2004) 1-11
[Access article in PDF]
Education as an end in itself is the clarion call of the liberal arts. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake must hold some appeal for anyone who takes teaching seriously both as an intrinsic good and as contributing to the sort of well-roundedness said to prepare citizens for democratic participation.1 Yet what persistently places the in-itself/for-itself claim at risk is the presence of commodity labor, either as the ends of education or as its means. It is worth remembering that the arguments for autonomy that provided the foundational idea of the Western university in the nineteenth century were made against the subordination of learning to labor, either as apprenticeship in a guild or as an occupational response to religious calling. Today, as the market appears to have stolen education's innocence in the form of the preponderance of professional training, it is tempting to see what might look like a one-hundred-year interregnum of the liberal arts as a golden age and not a historical aberration. During this time, the liberal ideal was already challenged by the model of the research university, where education was to serve the advancement of knowledge as a kind of global mastery; the multiversity, a conglomerate of interests whose chief practitioners, after University of California President Clark Kerr, were administrators; and the corporate university, whose intellectual properties were meant to fetch a good price.2
When one moves from ideals to demographics, it is hard to argue for a return to the glory days of, say, 1869, when, for example, in the United States, 563 institutions graduated fewer than 10,000 baccalaureates, at a ratio of nearly eight privileged men to every woman, and where proportionately, men were more than twice as likely to earn a degree. By 2001, over 15 million students were enrolled in more than 4,000 U.S. institutions of higher education, over half of whom were women, and a million and a quarter bachelor's degrees were awarded.3 As professional services came to define the job market, the very character of the degree shifted. In 1970, bachelor's degrees in the liberal arts were still approaching half of the total (at 46 percent). Thirty years later, the number had fallen to 35 percent. Degrees in business increased the most (from 114,729 to 265,746 between 1970 and 2000), and those in education suffered the greatest decline (from 176,307 to 105,556). Literature, mathematics, physical science, [End Page 1] social science, and history all graduate fewer students than they did thirty years ago (although the social sciences and history have recouped much of the lost ground).4 MBAs comprise nearly a quarter of the master's degrees awarded, and more professional degrees (MDs, JDs, etc.) are granted than PhDs. Even the growth in doctorates—which has reached a plateau in the past decade—reflects the preponderance of PhDs with professional applications such as education (which at the doctoral level has fluctuated but was still higher in 2000 than it was in 1970), engineering, psychology, and the life sciences, which are the fields in which the greatest number of degrees are awarded.5 Whatever the (re)turn to professionalism means in higher education, these few figures indicate that it is here to stay.
Like any good nostalgia, the warmth toward a university free of the market invents a past to claim a normative present. The activation of academic labor, closely intertwined with a labor and disciplinary crisis in the humanities, imagined a past where securing a job was unproblematic and a curriculum that was given as a received tradition. At issue is not simply the accuracy of these histories, but the scope of political desire unleashed by academic labor movements. To the extent that they are framed within the craft ambitions of job security, they aspire to a model of professional autonomy and control over the labor market that is already behind us. To insist that academic labor movements are about the production of knowledge for others, to recast the modernist values...