Into the Caldron:

Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself

By Jeff Gross

August Featured Essay

When I started college during the fall of 1998, our entire incoming class was given Canisius College t-shirts with the following oft-cited John Dewey “quotation” on the backs: “Education is not preparation for life but life itself.” The passage is bastardized from two different Dewey pieces. In “Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal,” Dewey suggests, “if I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education, I should say: ‘Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.’”1 His quotation would take up a little more space on the back of a t-shirt or on a bumper sticker, though the oft-cited misquote seems to grasp the core of Dewey’s sentiment. Later, Dewey returns to the idea in “Educational Lectures before Brigham Young Academy, 2. Social Aspects of Education,” where he describes one of the purposes of education as the “social idea”: “The definition which it offers is that education is the preparation for the social position of life, the preparation of the individual to play his proper part in the community or state of which he is a member.”2 Dewey’s sentiments echoed Thomas Jefferson’s ideals for higher education in the United States as a space where a citizenry capable of self-government would emerge.

That same semester, as our t-shirts proclaimed a celebration of the intellectual experience of education and the meaningfulness of education for life, signs of a different meaning of college were all around. Bookstore bags, from the eFollett campus store, were preloaded with brochures and offers for credit cards and magazine subscriptions. The financial aid office recommended Sallie Mae loans. Education as an idea and education as an enterprise shared common ground, but a battle was afoot on campuses all over for which version of education would win. The subsequent decades have shown the battle lines emerge, especially as neoliberalism and conservatism have aligned to attack liberal arts programs as well as programs specifically aimed at the studies of racism, sexism, ecology, and poverty. Donors have influenced hiring; governors and legislators have pressured programs and orchestrated financial attacks, which—done in the name of austerity—have forced universities to be remade in a revenue-driven way.

Today, we’re left in a precarious position where university faculty and students can no longer question everything because academic departments are cut in the name of austerity and academic freedom is undermined. In this paradigm, if we apply the ethos that education is supposed to be life itself, then we end up with a system in which not all lives matter, especially those already decentered from power.

Ideology and devalued lives

In May, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted to shutter 46 degree programs across the system’s 17 campuses. Among the programs cut at North Carolina State University, one of the system’s campuses, were Africana Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. These cuts targeted programs that offer students the methodologies and theories for studying the relationship between identities and sociopolitical structures. Most importantly, with their focus on social justice, such educational opportunities prepare students to be future citizen learner-leaders able to address the conditions of life—local, regional, national, and global—that exist in the world today. Across the UNC system, programs in K-12, secondary, physical, and special education were among those cut at a number of campuses.

To explain the decision, Steven Long, the Board’s Vice Chair of the Academic Planning Committee, said, “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.” Who decides which programs are in demand? Long’s statement does address the financial crunch faced by universities—a burden imposed due to ideology, as tax revenues are reduced and dispersed to other entities. If his evocation of “we” refers to the Board of Governors, then Long can’t be blamed for his honesty. If he is speaking on behalf of the University of North Carolina system, then he goes against the system’s stated mission:

That mission is to discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society. This mission is accomplished through instruction, which communicates the knowledge and values and imparts the skills necessary for individuals to lead responsible, productive, and personally satisfying lives; through research, scholarship, and creative activities, which advance knowledge and enhance the educational process; and through public service, which contributes to the solution of societal problems and enriches the quality of life in the State.

The university’s cuts then beg the question: what are North Carolina’s social needs? The cuts seem to be based more on political goals than social needs, considering the range of programs cut.

When state governments create the conditions of austerity in higher education, they then, in turn, use those self-inflicted austerity conditions to justify further cutbacks. When we pull the seams apart, however, we can see the ideological roots and goals of curricular attacks. Cases of Board overreach abound, most notably at the University of Illinois, where Steven Salaita’s position was rescinded (or, more appropriately, terminated) due to his critical tweets about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. A committee board in North Carolina voted, in February, to close the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity as well as a biodiversity center at East Carolina University and a civic engagement and social change center at North Carolina Central University. The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in particular, was singled out because it had not adequately solved the problem of poverty.

That’s not a joke. John Fennebresque, Chairman of the Board of Governors, explained the group’s decision: “After careful review of the Center on Poverty—including an opportunity for the center director to fully describe its work—the board concluded the center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty.” The Center’s Director, Gene Nichol, has been a vocal critic of how the state’s austerity-driven politics have adversely affected those living in poverty; therefore, many scholars, including a number at Chapel Hill, interpret the vote to close as political retribution for criticism.

Higher education in the name of capitalism and free market economics limits the realm of what is available as a life worth living, but it also undermines the full value of “present life,” as Dewey would have it. In North Carolina, opportunities to critically discuss racism, sexism, and classism have been undermined in the name of “capitalist” demand. Therefore, in the Board of Governors’ realm, lives affected by sexism, racism, and classism matter less. When programs in Africana studies or Women’s and Gender studies are eliminated, so, too, is the opportunity of studying democracy, critical race theory, and the problems of patriarchy. When patterns of domination cannot be questioned, then education does not invite students to think about a more just society; instead, it constrains them within society as it exists. When a university system closes departments and cuts programs, it makes a value judgment about which kinds of lives are valued by the academy and, in the case of public institutions, the state.3 Of the 46 programs voted for closure in North Carolina, not one was a business program, with the exception of the Business and Marketing Education program at North Carolina State University. Education defined by capitalists supports capitalism.

Education dictated by capitalism (and capitalists) is neither preparation for life nor life itself. I don’t say this to romanticize Dewey’s ideas but instead to draw attention to the relationship between education and life. When opportunities to study race systematically are cut, then the university or state declares that black lives matter less. When opportunities to study gender are cut, then the university or state upholds patriarchy. When opportunities to study poverty are cut, then the university upholds economic domination. What remains is education for capitalism and for hegemony, preparing people to participate in markets and not disrupt them.

In reorganizing humans around exchanges of capital, neoliberalism changes the meaning of the citizen within society, and it certainly changes the role of the university in creating “citizens.” Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos traces the transformation we have undergone from democracy to neoliberalism, from homo politicus to homo oeconomicus. Brown cautions us to remember that the realm of liberal democracy was never pure of the forces of capitalism, something a study of history will show. Yet, she also examines how ideas of liberal democracy are now completely displaced:

When this other register is lost, when market values become the only values, when liberal democracy is fully transformed into market democracy, what disappears is this capacity to limit, this platform of critique, and this source of radical democratic inspiration and aspiration.4

The cuts in the UNC system and similar cuts in other states, especially Wisconsin, try to remove the “platform of critique,” that space in which market democracy—or neoliberal capitalism—and the structures of oppression it entails can be questioned, challenged, or exposed.

Unfortunately, we do not have to go very far to find evidence for the thesis that a neoliberal education devalues lives.

Plain proof: “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis”

On June 30, 2015, social media exploded with reactions to the apparent but inaccurate news that the University of Memphis had fired Zandria F. Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology, in response to “controversial tweets.” The sorts of tweets that The Washington Times had cited as raising “ire” were as follows (and, problematically, I rely on the publication’s hit piece here because, as of this writing, Robinson’s tweets have been protected for her own protection). Of the Confederate flag, she wrote, “The flag thus is a symbol of race, class, gender, & sexuality oppression. We need a more nuanced intersectional reading of the thing.” She allegedly added, “This isn’t to say that the American flag does not represent such things, but the confederate flag only represents those things for whites.” Of her experience as a mentor to youth, Robinson also tweeted, “I’ve been working w teens this summer & it has been a surreal experience talking to them (& the 12-yr-old at home) about being under attack.” She continued, “Like, this is a daily part of our lives. We don’t accept it. We *don’t*. But we alive now. We push back. We write. We laugh. We twerk. Hard.” The tweet that most upset the right wing attackers is as follows:

Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.

Let me say this: Zandria F. Robinson does not need me to defend her work or to tell her story. Read it in her words. In fact, it’s a must read.

Actually, Robinson had not been fired by the university. Rather, she had, in May, signed a contract at another college. What interests me here, however, is the social media response to the right-wing attacks on Robinson as a racist, especially as they relate to my questions about what lives matter at the neoliberal university. Following the publication of attack pieces by The Washington Times and National Review Online, the University of Memphis announced on both its official Twitter and Facebook accounts that “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.” This announcement, immediately following the hit pieces, caused many conservatives to celebrate the fact that they had gotten Robinson fired. The university did nothing to distance itself from such perceptions.

What should the University of Memphis have tweeted? I’m not sure. By HR practices, they may have been limited in what they could post. Yet, they did choose to post something, and that something did not include a defense of academic freedom. They chose to distance themselves from Zandria F. Robinson and her “controversial” ideas. The university’s lone short utterance gave credence to the attack pieces that targeted Robinson’s scholarship. Their public statement 5 created a forum for the continued public lynching of Robinson’s character that the Washington Times and National Review Online initiated. Commenters on Facebook and Twitter expressed relief that the university would remove someone who is “dangerous”:6

B— M— That you UofM for holding your employees to a higher standard. A person like this lady has no business in education.

R— R— @T— M— S— That’s the problem. She is teaching this rubbish. She should be banished from ever getting in front of any classroom ever again. She is vile in her delivery and content. This is a completely unintellectual juvenile mindset and manner of speaking. Simply not even civil. You can go talk to people in a third world banana republic this way but if you hate this country so much I will help pay for he one way ticket to anywhere. America is better than this. Grow the heck up elitist “UN intellectuals”

P— T— S— Bravo for firing racist professor! @D— your parents wasted their money on your education! Your grammar is horrendous!

On July 1, citing its social media policy, the University of Memphis started to pull comments that were explicitly racist or threatening. However, before that, some comments were even more explicit in their disdain for Robinson. Sensing that at some point the university would edit out some of the more egregious ad hominem attacks on Robinson, I copied the Facebook thread.

J— C— It serves you right you Racist Bitch!

J— C— Brianna you are one funny negro lol.. Thanks for the laughs.

J— C— More Niggers are showing there true faces.

L— P— That is good to here. Her comments on white people should be taken as hate crimes and she should be jailed.

S— R— She’s not the only professor spewing this garbage on a college campus! It is happening in MANY cities and you never hear about it.

S— B— Thank God the UM was wise enough to fire that radical Racist cow.

J— S— I hope that she now has time to twerk in between her death and rape threats. How in the world did this woman ever get hired? Is there anyway we can sue her for all the negative publicity that she has given to the University?

I could continue, but you get the idea. The posts were largely against Robinson and in support of the university firing her, as the commenters believed happened. However, it is important to note that many people called out the university for their means of disseminating information. By allowing the idea that Zandria F. Robinson had been fired to circulate, the University of Memphis turned its social media presence into a space of public lynching and a space that undermined entire fields of work, including critical race theory.

When the University of Memphis finally entered the Facebook discussion, they referenced their official social media policy to explain how comments would be regulated:

University of Memphis The University of Memphis Social Media Policy section 3.10 states: Comments must be absent of expletives, obscenity and vulgarity. Comments threatening in tone or evolving into personal attacks are to be deleted by account administrators.

Notably, the university did not defend academic freedom or the place in a university for critical readings of race and, in particular, of whiteness.

The perception that Robinson’s tweets were racist was widely and uncritically accepted, especially when the story trickled into local media, where she was labeled as “Controversial Professor” by WREG-TV. Similarly, WMC-TV used the headline: “Rhodes hires U of M professor accused of sending controversial tweets.” Within the mainstream, tweets such as Robinson’s may seem controversial, especially because deep critiques of racism are uncommon. However, in reality, her tweets offer important and common critiques of U.S. empire, systemic racism, white supremacism, and whiteness.

Robinson’s tweets question hegemony, and they came in the context of continued attacks on blackness, including the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, an attack that fits in a long line of church bombings, burnings, and shootings. Yet, Fox News tried to frame the mass shooting as an attack on Christianity, a gambit ultimately exposed when Dylann Roof’s manifesto was made available. Attacks on persons of color by state and extra-state agents need not be recounted here. Evidence is everywhere.

Here’s the thing: universities have to be places that bring the discussions of academic work to the broader community. Robinson’s tweets articulated the ideas of a scholar and activist for a broad audience. Her personal speech acts were informed by her work as a sociologist engaged in questions of race and white supremacism. By failing to defend both academic freedom and the importance of work that questions power, the University of Memphis ultimately reinforced the division between academy and community. Because the university related Robinson’s tweets to her employment status, they implied that the content of tweets was inappropriate. As a result, the academic work seemed less “valid,” and local media could pass off the problematic assumption that the professor behind the work was “controversial.”

Robinson’s tweets attack whiteness, which like Melville’s white whale, can be hunted but not destroyed. Rather, the diverse crew that hunts the symbol of whiteness is ultimately destroyed. For Robinson, questioning the symbolism of the Confederate and U.S. flags makes her, in the media’s eye, as maniacal as Ahab. She is presented as dangerous for a university to employ. The best local coverage came from the Commercial Appeal, which gestured toward putting the attention surrounding Robinson in the context of other recent attacks on black scholars. Yet, the newspaper’s headline read, “Memphis professor stirs up racial caldron.” As one of my colleague’s friends noted on Facebook, “More like, ‘racial caldron cooks Memphis professor.’”

That comment ultimately returns me to my central argument. This essay is neither about Zandria F. Robinson nor the University of Memphis. Rather, I question the larger context in which they exist. In the neoliberal university—commoditized and privatized as it is, voices that question domination and undermine capitalist narratives continue to be smothered. These voices have always been marginalized in the university, but in the neoliberal university, these voices are construed as bad for business. Programs are shuttered. Scholars are left unprotected, especially adjuncts who teach many courses without experiencing the protections of academic freedom.

In this light, an analysis of Steven Long’s assertion that “We’re capitalists” shows that voices that question hegemony can be tolerated only so long as they’re safe, but if they go too far, the scholars behind them are silenced. In the immediate aftermath of this controversy, the University of Memphis distanced itself from not only Robinson but any scholar who wants to question structures of domination by failing to release a statement on academic freedom and the importance of ideas that sometimes provoke, upset, or invite dialogue.

Running the neoliberal university

Illustrations that President David Rudd is running a neoliberal university came the day after the Robinson “controversy” erupted, when his tweets concerned not academic freedom (or even academics) but college football and Starbucks.



I don’t know Rudd’s stance on academic freedom or on Robinson’s scholarship. But the logic of the neoliberal university is that it constrains everyone within the system. Presidents get reduced to fundraising and media roles, and their jobs hang on the whims and political objectives of trustees and regents. What cannot be argued, though, is the simple fact that on the day after his university became briefly the center of attention, and on the day it was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, Rudd used his public social media presence not to make statements about academic freedom or diversity but, instead, aspects of the university that are consumer- and revenue-oriented: major college sports and the outsourcing of dining services. At a moment when optics and perception are tightly monitored by universities as part of their branding, such choices are astounding for what they reveal. The message that “We’re capitalists” is loud and clear.

It was not until three days after the initial incident that Rudd, on July 3, emailed the university community to deal with the fall-out of the university’s handling of the Robinson situation on social media. He wrote:

Events of the past week, both national and local, have raised a number of issues central to the core values of university life, including academic freedom, social justice, race, gender and diversity, among a host of others. At the heart of our mission is a commitment to providing a high-quality comprehensive education for our students, and doing so in a safe environment but also one that challenges our students to explore a diverse range of ideas and beliefs, grow and develop as individuals, and become part of an active and involved citizenry in a democratic society. An exceptional educational experience is one that challenges ideas and encourages creativity, not one that insulates students from the diversity that is our city and nation. Diversity enriches all of our lives. Universities are about ideas, some of which will push traditional boundaries and challenge the status quo. A vibrant university community embraces this reality. It does not seek to silence debate and discussion; rather it encourages and nurtures it.

Rudd’s words here say the right things about academic freedom. His evocation of an “involved citizenry in a democratic society” gets to the core of the long-standing mission for higher education in the United States. Before a final “Go Tigers!,” Rudd signs off for the holiday weekend by reflecting on the meaning of Independence Day: “I know that I for one will reflect on the meaning of this holiday and the countless sacrifices made by many to protect the very freedoms that are at the heart of our great university.”

In the context of Rudd’s delayed response to the vicious racism appearing on the university’s Facebook page, I couldn’t help but think of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In Douglass’s speech, delivered on July 5, 1852, the abolitionist famously points out that July 4, among all holidays, serves to remind the slave of the rights he does not have:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

In the days following the public disgracing of a former faculty member, Rudd tweeted about football and Starbucks. It took three days of public outcry and shaming for the University of Memphis to make a blanket statement about academic freedom, the sort of statement that a university president should have been able to deliver immediately after the initial attack pieces on Zandria F. Robinson appeared. Only when the outcry did not die down did he message the university community about the importance of academic freedom and diversity at his university. His final framing of the discussion in the context of Independence Day and sacrifices rings as “a sham” and “mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.” For students and faculty members of color, those three days must have made them wonder how much their lives mattered to their university.

On July 6, after his weekend of reflection, Rudd again reached out to the university community: “This past week, a flood of inquiries resulted in an inadvertent posting about Dr. Robinson’s employment status, a posting that was made on the university Twitter account. We apologize for the posting and have corrected the vulnerabilities revealed in our communications procedures.”

For Rudd, in the end, the university’s Facebook status update and tweet that “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis” was “inadvertent,” a word that can be used to mean either “inattentive” or “unintentional.” Either way, Rudd’s second clarification on the matter fails to instill confidence in the university’s understanding that it did something wrong. Rather, it is implied that the social media posts seem to be on par with a technical malfunction, unfortunate but not representative of the university’s values. It was a problem with the apparatus but not with the ideology. It took nearly a week to arrive at this conclusion, after the social media posts had elicited negative responses. Rudd’s message to the university focused on vulnerabilities that damaged the brand more than on the person victimized by the actions of the university. Ultimately, the problem boiled down to a customer service issue rather than an intellectual issue, something to be fixed.

Liberal arts and neoliberal enterprises

What is not inadvertent is the fact that so many universities in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Tennessee are facing similar crises. Neoliberal urges for privatization and conservative attacks on curricula have combined to leave universities in precarious positions where they can no longer serve their founding missions. As states cut budgets to public universities, administrators have to find ways to generate revenue—outsourcing food and promoting Starbucks, selling football tickets, and expanding brands. In branding, maintaining the status quo sells. For students and faculty of color and those who openly seek environments where they can explore and challenge hegemony, the pressure is real.

The image of the caldron, one strangely picked by the Commercial Appeal in its headline  “Memphis professor stirs up racial caldron,” evokes images of witchcraft and the Salem witch trials in U.S. history. Those who practiced witchcraft—or those who did not fit within the accepted ideological framework of the period—were unfairly tried and hanged at the gallows. Whether the product of intentional word choice or bad editing, the headline frames Robinson as “racist,” as the witch of modern times, and takes as its foundation the attacks of the right wing press. For faculty and students of color, their experiences are devalued, even as they already suffer from being underrepresented.

But where do we go from here? Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be traces the history of colleges and liberal arts in the United States. Delbanco is at times both nostalgic for past ideals (and we should all be nostalgic for education that identified preparing people for citizenship as a central tenet) and concerned for the future, especially for students from underrepresented groups. Near the end of his argument, Delbanco asks us to recall that it is students from underrepresented groups who often get left out:

No doubt, students with good preparation obtained in good high schools bring huge advantages with them to college. And since affluent applicants are overwhelmingly likely to have the stronger credentials, it will always be difficult for selective colleges to reconcile their twin principles of equity and excellence when they admit their new class every year. Yet it is often students of lesser means for whom college means the most–not just in the measurable sense of improving their economic competitiveness, but in the intellectual and imaginative enlargement it makes possible.7

Delbanco’s argument places education on two planes simultaneously. First, he recognizes that college for students from underrepresented groups is about improving economic access. President Obama’s arguments for free community college are based on this ideal. Notably, because of the amount of debt that students from these groups must take on–especially in an era when Pell Grants cover a much smaller portion of expenses–these economic benefits are sometimes delayed, but they are still real for students who can persist.

Persistence, on the other hand, is the challenge. For students to feel the “intellectual and imaginative enlargement” that a college education makes possible, then they need to feel that their lives are valued and affirmed. They need to understand their place within the power structures that shape their existence, and they need to understand the importance of their voice in sociopolitical dialogue.

Brown explores the ramifications of neoliberal education reform for democracy. She argues, “Citizens cannot rule themselves, even if that means only thoughtfully choosing representatives or voting on referenda, let alone engaging in more direct practice of shared rule, without understanding the powers and problems they are engaging.”8 The trend in education—primary, secondary, university, public, and private—moves toward an emphasis on, in Brown’s words, “human capital development, where human capital is what the individual, the business world, and the state seek to enhance in order to maximize competitiveness.”9 If fully realized, this vision will leave us with curriculums where students have few opportunities to question structures of power.

Dylan Rodriguez, following scholars such as Brown, bell hooks, and Colin Dayan, reads such reforms through the lenses of civil and social death:

This is why Indian reservations, the U.S. prison and criminalization regime, and even Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies need to be critically addressed through a genocide analytic as well as through focused critiques of neoliberalism’s cultural and economic structures: the logics of social neutralization (civil death, land expropriation, white supremacist curricular enforcement) always demonstrate the capacity (if not actually existing political will and institutional inclination) to effectively exterminate people from social spaces and wipe them out of the social text.10

Fortunately for Zandria F. Robinson, she had already left the University of Memphis for another job, as that university seemed all too content to wipe her from the social text—to host her public lynching on their Facebook page. For faculty and students of color and those who struggle with poverty, underemployment, and unemployment, the University of North Carolina system has likewise dismissed the importance of their lives and experiences.11

For universities and for the faculty, students, and alumni who care about life itself, this moment demands attention to institutional mission and goals. We need to recognize the business-oriented reality universities face right now, especially at a moment when public funding for education is down. At the same time, we have allowed a neoliberal capitalist ethic to overtake education in the past 30 years. Such an ethic has also opened universities and faculty up to right wing attacks by those who view critical examinations of the status quo as outside the role of higher education.

Professors, students, administrators, and parents all have to demand that education be about life itself. More specifically, we need to make sure that vulnerable lives—black lives, poverty-stricken lives, gay lives, trans lives, women’s lives, ecologically-threatened lives (human and nonhuman)—can be studied and understood with the hopes of creating a more just and sustainable society. Certainly, at most colleges and universities, such an education still happens. Faculty and students committed to social justice and inquiry have these conversations. Yet, we see the risks now of speaking out, when a state board or university can use austerity as a reason to shut down an entire department or program.

We need to fight against such an approach to education, one that attempts to make stakeholders compliant and to organize them as homo oeconomicus and prepare them to be units of capital in a system based solely on capital. Now is the time to undermine such a system. Otherwise, at many universities, perhaps the entering class of 2019 should receive branded t-shirts that, on the back, read, “Our Starbucks is ranked #___.”

Editor: Leah Bayens

Copyediting by Emily Cottingham and Beth Connors-Manke

Featured Image: “Students No Longer Centered” by Brian Connors Manke