Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

How neoliberal criticism hides academic behavior that is not incompatible with neoliberal behavior


During the conference ‘The idea of University and the Future of Knowledge. Views of the Humanities’ (convened by the Centre for the Humanities on September 19 and 20, 2013), the university has been framed in different ways. However, I think that the frames were not only incomplete and inconsistent, but that they were also put on to the wrong targets.


In the brochure, the university was defined “as the location of academic and scientific excellence”, a change agent with a role “in forming the citizens of the future”, “the institution […] as a bastion of academic freedom and critical thinking” and “the producer of scientific excellence” (p. 3). Professor Van der Zwaan opposed the romantic and nostalgic perspective on the ivory tower (ample money, academic freedom, find but not interfere, no competition and intrinsic value of knowledge) to the utilitarian perspective (corporatist, accountants, production, value for money) and suggested slow science, characterized by quality, academic freedom and financial health. According to professor Van Oostrom, ‘university’ was the most important legacy that we owe to the Middle Ages. That it is hard to close down a university and that a new one pops up every day, shows the strength of the concept. The concept is still in development and changes through time, but the essence is the same: the love of learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the desire to educate young people in this. It’s the tradition we work in and that will survive us, but we change it as well. Professor Scott painted a pessimistic picture of the university, fallen into ruins as it is taken over by offices of assessment and administrators. Professor Lorenz called it a cancer like system that is governed by quantified control and renders professionals obsolete. Dr. Oosterling, while in the audience, suggested the idea of a guild like system for craftsmanship. In his speech, he emphasized the aspect of creating democratic practices, i.e. practices in which students learn and develop democratic skills, and producing new discursive practices. Professor Mijnhardt zoomed in on the diversity in academia’s workforce and distinguished between careerists and philosophischen Köpfen (‘philosophical heads’). The first don’t want to do any extra work, they just want to meet the requirements with a minimum of effort. In short, they want to profit from scholarship, not invest in it. The latter want to know how the world works first, but they also like gain and financial reward. Mister Leonhard, futurist, predicted that the university would lose its monopoly on information. Professor Lambert didn’t see the university as a guardian of concepts (such as peace) anymore, but suggested faculties of the Humanities could fulfill that role.

In sum, the university was framed as a location, a change agent, an institution, a producer, a concept, a tradition, an employer, a workforce, a resigned guardian, a soon to be ex-monopolist on information and, currently, a nightmare.

Framing and blaming

During the conference, the idea of ‘university’ was debated along the lines of a classic dispute. One protagonist was Humanism, another one was Neoliberalism. At only one moment in the conference, Neoliberalism was explored on its agency. Was it a myth? A conspiracy? Can we grab it? Is it an ideology? An invisible hand? Rationality? Forms of reason? A modality of governance? I got the impression that it was the antithesis of Humanism. Because they were framed as opponents and most people at the conference were in favor of Humanism, I will refer to Neoliberalism as the antagonist. Humanism was framed as critical, ethical, curiosity driven, aimed at the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whereas Neoliberalism was framed as utilitarian, immoral, society and/or market driven, aimed at the pursuit of knowledge for the economy. If Humanism were to overcome its internal differences and unite, said professor Braidotti, the future would be brilliant. Still, Neoliberalism, so was the general idea, is on the verge of winning, with consequent risks for our democracies.

During and after the conference I wondered, does it make sense to structure the debate in this protagonist ↔ antagonist style? It seemed to me that ‘Humanism’ and ‘Neoliberalism’ were used as containers, with ‘othering’ as a consequence. ‘Othering’ is the process in which we define what is ‘not us’ in terms of an easily as ‘not us’ recognizable surface and a ‘not us’ content that doesn’t deserve further examination. While ‘othering’, we define ourselves in terms of ‘not our enemy’ and deny firstly that we too might have characteristics that we despise in the other, secondly that the other can have the same characteristics that we love in ourselves. The us-ing and them-ing way in which Humanism and Neoliberalism were framed at the conference didn’t, I think, do justice to reality for two reasons.

What are we talking about?

First, definitions where blurry. Humanism was the container for such words as (in alphabetical order) academic freedom, activism, ambiguity, analytical thinking, associated with progressive and leftish, autonomy, captivating stories, citizenship, classical training, creativity, constructive, craftsmanship, creativity, criticism, curiosity, debate, decadence, democracy, denounce/expose universals, discursive, distinguish foolish from wise, doubt, doubt, education, emancipatory, empowering, ethical questions/thinking, experience of the excluded, facilitator of the public, fidelity to the truth of the event, free agenda, guardian, guild like, inspiring, intellectual, interpretation, intrinsic value of knowledge, ivory tower, knowledge of the human, liberal arts, life of freedom, love of learning, political work, practice of thought, professionals, professors, public intellectual, radicalization, rhetoric and eloquence, self governance, self regulation, selected guardians, showing specifics, soul building, study of the demos, subversive, super specialism, talent, truth to power, uncertainty, understanding codes, understanding socio-historic conditions. But surely, as history shows, Humanism has been more than this (its a-religious past was forgotten) and less than this. As some noted during the conference, not all of the words above have ever referred to a robust social reality and together they nostalgically and melancholically point at a romanticized image of a Humanist university that has never been.

Neoliberalism, in turn, was a container filled with terms as (in alphabetical order) accountants, administrators, anti-professionalism, assessments, calculation, cash, CEO, commodification, competition, corporatization, culture of evidence, deliverables, disinvestment, economy, efficiency, external metrification, fees, hedonistic, indicators, investment, managerialism, performance agreements, power, privatization, production, quantified control, rankings, return on investment, sellability, service, stakeholder value, testing industry, transparent work load models, value for money, value maximalization, worth. Hardly terms that are confined solely to the realm of Neoliberalism, as the histories of Communisms, Bureaucracies and Fascisms show. And talking about history, Neoliberalism was born out of the concern that governments spend too little to get the economy going, not out of a blind obsession with budget cuts.

I’m not proclaiming Neoliberalism here nor want to denounce Humanism, but I think sloppy, a-historical definitions are unhelpful in pinning the issues down, discussing them productively beyond the proper church or finding a way out.

Are we free from sin?

Second, despite blurry definitions, Neoliberalism and Humanism were presented as mutually exclusive in their essences. Rightly so? Are there no Humanist traits in Neoliberalism? My guess is that the answer is no. Neoliberalism is just as curious about what works plus why and how, and just as critical about values as the next Humanism defender. It’s also ethical as it chooses between right and wrong based on arguments. At most, one can say that the performance indicators are different from the ones Humanism would choose. But is Humanism really free from Neoliberalist traits in these indicators? Again, I guess not. In academia it’s deemed fully legitimate to create a (niche) market, enter into competition and pursue a monopoly in the field, resulting in honorary jobs such as speaking at conferences. The differences between academic haves and have-nots become visible once a select group is put on stage and the majority isn’t, as the conference at hand exemplified too. The possibility of a genuine exchange was limited as the larger part of the available time was allotted to the speakers and further limited because some speakers left the conference shortly after they addressed the audience, as was the case on the first morning. The disappearing act after lunch of the Dutch contributors, men with administrative tasks, can be interpreted as the subtle but notable message, “I have something to say to you, but nothing to learn from you.” Obviously, the organizing party and the contributors from abroad couldn’t leave the conference, but I didn’t notice a lot of engaged interaction with others during the informal parts of the program either. I don’t necessarily think that this is a deliberate form of in and exclusion, but I do think that the behavior at an academic conference (and most others) is a matter of playing out a performance, with power differentials, role division and habit – and, again, not very different from how competitors behave in a market. Indeed, the critique of the Neoliberalist university has become its proper market, governed by the same principles that were put forward in the analysis of Neoliberalism.

Another similarity with how markets work is the reception of newcomers on the market. At the conference discussed here, the established generation (endearingly called ‘the elderly scholars’ by a young panelist) was rather critical about the pragmatism of the upcoming generation and at times, I sensed an atmosphere of disapproval. The upcoming generation, in turn, expressed some worries about what they perceived as the idealized and romanticized version of academic freedom. (So far, I have been citing the speakers using their names and titles from the program. Tellingly, the names of the younger generation are concealed under the header ‘Young academics panel’ and, unlike the other speakers, their bios in the booklet are missing. When I decipher my handwriting I come up with Haijo ten Brandt, Esther Krabbendans, Iris van der Tuin and Martino X. Apologies for I must have misspelled their names as I can only trace Iris van der Tuin via Google). Their statement was that they were affected by the rules set by the older generation, which is not affected by those same rules. As they said: “We try to play the game and keep our backs straight.” They showed a desire to change things they were dissatisfied with, instead of self-marginalize and self-annihilate. On the other hand, they also expressed worries about being sucked into a system with other values than their own. The importance of position was succinctly verbalized in the end – literally, it was the final sentence before drinks – by professor Braidotti, who said something like: “We radicalize because they can’t touch us because we have a position.”

At a more abstract level, there’s always a quid pro quo, a trade off in academia, be it as basic as a salary and the opportunity to maintain a certain life style, as hidden as the tit for tat cartel formation that helps create the market and its star providers, or as inherent as the importance of the method one utilizes (from the Greek ‘way to’, which suggest an ‘in order to’). That’s not essentially Neoliberalist nor Humanist, but Human. I guess I missed that protagonist in this conference (although professor Braidotti referred to the plethora of ‘human’). It could have been the missing link.

I don’t want to belittle the problems nor insult the analysts, but all in all I think that how the issues were framed resulted in a rhetoric in which the arguments of Neoliberalism were deconstructed – read: shown as false – and those of Humanism left untouched (only professor Van der Zwaan took some effort to try to explain Neoliberalism and mitigate its consequences with the proposal of mixed funding and slow science). To me, it didn’t testify of a lot of self criticism (although professor Mijnhardt sighted that “We have ourselves to blame” by denying the honor in teaching). Othering can have that effect. At moments, I had the impression that the ‘things can only get worse’ script of the academic haves on stage was enforced, because otherwise the whole anti-Neoliberal narrative would lose its validity. And yet, there was also room for optimism in the masses.

The idea of university

There has also been mention of a ‘Public’, an entity that was again framed as ‘other’, non-Humanist. It could be the beneficiary of Humanism, but it could also turn against it and become its opponent. It was in the framing of Public that it became most clear that ‘the idea of university’ was cast in the framework of the institution, also announced in the accompanying booklet: “academics from all disciplines have rallied to defend the institution of the university as a bastion of academic freedom and critical thinking, as well as the producer of scientific excellence” (p. 3).

Above, I have made a distinction between academic haves and have-nots. What do the haves actually have? They have a location, an institution, a concept, a tradition, an employer, careerist colleagues and, currently, a nightmare. It takes a lot of money and effort and, apparently, frustration to uphold this bastion. During the conference, as I listened to their analyses and their reports on how they saw ‘the university’ as a change agent, a producer and a guardian fall into ruins, I asked myself, why would anyone want to stay in that position or try to acquire it? Has the university turned into an ivory cage? The only speaker who actually quit the institution because it didn’t allow him to do this work the way he wanted to do it, was former professor dr. Oosterling. Why would it be logic to depend upon an institution for the exercise of academic freedom? Indeed, as professor Wijnhardt asked, why do we let ourselves be dictated? If you really care about your ideals, then let go of what you have if it’s holding you back, and move. The history of thinking about what it means to be human began way before it was embedded in an institution. Yes, there is critical thinking, creativity and a desire to learn in Publics, if only because so many scholars de-institutionalized long before the haves started their rally. It’s time to reposition yourself, tap into Public and join the powers that can become. That’s how you can create a movement too.

Just an idea.