Higher education’s cult of leadership

American higher education has been taken over by “neo-liberalism,” which is the idea that all institutions in society should pattern themselves on profit-seeking corporations and serve the interests of business.

So argues Willliam Deresiewicz, in a good article in the current issue of Harper’s magazine.  The old idea of higher education was to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, he wrote; these have been pushed aside by corporate buzzwords.   As an example, he cited a liberal arts college’s mission statement – leadership, service, integrity, creativity.

He said integrity nowadays means nothing more than “not cheating”.   As for the rest—

HarpersWeb-2015-09-cover-302x410So what’s so bad about leadership, service, and creativity?  What’s bad about them is that, as they’re understood on campus and beyond, they are all encased in neo-liberal assumptions.  Neo-liberalism, which dovetails perfectly with meritocracy, has generated a caste system: “winners and losers,” “makers and takers,” “the best and the brightest,” the whole gospel of Ayn Rand and her Übermenschen.   That’s what “leadership” is finally about.  There are leaders, and then there is everyone else: the led, presumably — the followers, the little people.  Leaders get things done; leaders take command.  When colleges promise to make their students leaders, they’re telling them they’re going to be in charge.

“Service” is what the winners engage in when they find themselves in a benevolent mood.  Call it Clintonism, by analogy with Reaganism.  Bill Clinton not only ratified the neoliberal consensus as president, he has extended its logic as a former president.  Reaganism means the affluent have all the money, as well as all the power.  Clintonism means they use their money and power, or a bit of it, to help the less fortunate — because the less fortunate (i.e., the losers) can’t help themselves.  Hence the Clinton Foundation, hence every philanthropic or altruistic endeavor on the part of highly privileged, highly credentialed, highly resourced elites, including all those nonprofits or socially conscious for-profits that college students start or dream of starting.

“Creativity,” meanwhile, is basically a business concept, aligned with the other clichés that have come to us from the management schools by way of Silicon Valley: “disruption,” “innovation,” “transformation.”  “Creativity” is not about becoming an artist.  No one wants you to become an artist.   It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques — “solutions,” which imply that you already know the problem.  “Creativity” means design thinking, in the terms articulated by the writer Amy Whitaker, not art thinking: getting from A to a predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

Leadership, service, and creativity do not seek fundamental change (remember, fundamental change is out in neoliberalism); they seek technological or technocratic change within a static social framework, within a market framework.  Which is really too bad, because the biggest challenges we face — climate change, resource depletion, the disappearance of work in the face of automation — will require nothing less than fundamental change, a new organization of society.  If there was ever a time that we needed young people to imagine a different world, that time is now.

via The Neoliberal Arts by Willliam Deresiewicz in Harper’s magazine.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

The problem with the ideal of leadership is that it displaces the ideal of citizenship.

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One Response to “Higher education’s cult of leadership”

  1. danielwalldammit Says:

    I hate it when people talk about ‘leadership’. It so rarely has any definite meaning.


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