Shut Up and Teach

By Leigh M. Johnson

Response to “Into the Caldron

If there is an award for packing the most multivalent and oft-exploited terms into a single essay title, Jeff Gross should win it for what follows “Into the Caldron”: neoliberalism, ideology, education, and life itself. Those four words and things are the conversational equivalent of IEDs in the Academy these days. Buried along the discursive roadside, lying in wait for some poor soul with insufficiently protective theoretical armor to trip their wires and unleash their autoschediastic havoc, these are the sorts of broad conceptual terms that earn students demerits in their essays—What exactly do you mean by this? Define your terms. Be Specific.—though I suspect many of us worry that we’re also hand-waving in the general direction of mysterious phenomenon most of the time we employ them.

If there is another award for clearly and succinctly explicating workable definitions of “neoliberalism,” “ideology,” and “education” in the service of an eminently persuasive argument about what really matters in and for “life itself,” Gross should win that prize as well.


Like most people, I suspect, I agree with Gross that higher education today fails to achieve the Deweyan ideal of providing a space in which learning is primarily valued non-instrumentally, an environment in which intellectual cultivation is not merely a means to some other, better and more profitable life, but rather a valued and valuable manner of “life itself.” Gross argues this failure is the consequence of higher education’s acquiescence to the (ultimately profit-motivated) values of neoliberal ideology—deregulation, privatization, the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision, and the uniform reduction of homo politicus to homo oeconomicus—which is evidenced most dramatically by what he calls “manufactured austerity” conditions in higher education. Driven by wealthy and powerful donors/shareholders, “managed” via bloated administrative infrastructures, running on the exploited labor of underpaid staff and contingent faculty, departments and programs (mostly in the liberal arts) across the country have been pink-slipped for being irrelevant, inapplicable or, in what amounts to the same thing, unprofitable.

The inevitable consequence, Gross rightly contends, is that “what remains is education for capitalism and for hegemony, preparing people to participate in markets and not disrupt them.” Neoliberal ideological trends in higher education both reinforce and reproduce the broader neoliberal ideological drifts we see evidenced in the American polis. So it should come as no surprise that, in such an environment, we find colleges and universities (1) implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) endorsing uncritical, ahistorical, and fundamentally anti-intellectual values as part of their larger risk-management and capital security strategies, (2) implicitly (and often explicitly) redirecting resources away from underserved student populations’ concerns and toward the concerns of already-privileged classes of students, (3) subordinating educational aims to remunerative aims in their mission statements and activities, and (4) modelling for students, qua corporation, what it means to be a citizen.

Pace Dewey and Gross, all this amounts to conceding, in effect, that higher education really does succeed in “preparing students for life,” with one important caveat: the life students are being prepared for is this life, life in this world, this market and this hegemony, as it is already, which means students are not being prepared to criticize, to question, to contribute good where it is wanting or to effect change where it is needed.  Rather, students are being prepared for a life of compliance, consent and coercive control.

That the consequence of this institutional model is, as Gross argues, “neoliberal education devalues lives” is as unsurprising as it is inevitable.

"The Shape of Things" by Brian Connors Manke
“The Shape of Things” by Brian Connors Manke

As I read him, Gross is primarily concerned with the modelling activity of universities and colleges, what sort of paradigm these institutions are adopting and legitimating for students, the manner in which that model and that paradigm not only serves to restrict the space in which students can intellectually move, develop, and breathe, but also draws in the boundaries of (civic, moral, professional, and intellectual) “life itself” as they live it. So, the truly reprehensible—but no less paradigmatic for being so—modelling of civic, moral, professional, and intellectual behavior exhibited by the University of Memphis in its dealings with Dr. Zandria F. Robinson provides an exemplary case for Gross’s argument. In what follows, I’d like to briefly redirect the focus of that example a bit, away from what this does and says to students and back to what it does and says to faculty. I do so not as a criticism of Gross’s essay, but rather an amplification of his concerns.

[Full disclosure: I am an alumna of the University of Memphis, where I received my B.A. in Philosophy, and Dr. Robinson is a friend and former colleague of mine.]

The pernicious influence of neoliberal ideology on institutions of higher education is most evident, one could argue, in its increasing and intentional reliance on exploited labor. An overwhelming majority of the professoriate now belong to what economists and sociologists call the “precariat,” a portmanteau combining “precarious” and “proletariat” and referring to the social class of contingently employed or underemployed workers for whom predictability or security in employment is absent. Many students remain unaware—while they matriculate, at least—of the crippling (and ever-compounding) expense of their education, and even less so of the suffocating stranglehold of debt that awaits them when they finish. For most faculty, on the other hand, the fact that market-driven, instrumentalist, and deregulatory institutional policies profit universities only by manufacturing austerity for its employees and charges is, day in and day out, nothing other than “life itself.”

The manufactured austerity of which Gross speaks is only possible under conditions of exploited labor, where workers are first made to understand their positions as contingent and expendable. One way to effect those conditions is to increase the number of contract faculty piecemeal, such that in the span of a few short decades the majority of university employees are no longer capable of exercising any real leverage (for example, through faculty governance bodies) towards institutional oversight or change. Another way is to turn a blind eye to self-reproducing structural inequalities (for example, in hiring and promotion of large sub-groups of faculty like women and racial minorities), such that the activities of the institution itself become determined in advance by a privileged value-set identical to those held by donors, Boards of Trustees, and the likewise powerful.

There are many other strategies that accomplish the same ends, of course—bloating the administrative infrastructure, prioritizing the institution’s “corporate” interests (“brand” development and “image” management, investment in rankings schema, sports, and merchandising), discouraging or punishing union activity, shrouding day-to-day operations in cloak-and-dagger bureaucracy, litigating endlessly, expensively, and without mercy, insisting that academic programs justify their existences via assessment rubrics with highly restrictive, myopic, instrumentalist determinations of value, coopting the not-strictly-speaking “professional” speech (i.e., social media) and activities (i.e., participation in protest movements) of university employees—all of which communicate clearly and unambiguously to faculty that if they’re interested in keeping their jobs and paying their rent, they would really be much better off to just shut up and teach.

This was the message that the University of Illinois sent to Steven Salaita (and, in a mildly optimistic turn, a message that UI may very well regret sending now). That was also the message that the University of Memphis delivered to Zandria F. Robinson—and to all faculty,  really, but especially female faculty and faculty of color—when they elected not to intervene in the racist, sexist, and coordinated attacks on her. Because, in the end, the most effective strategy for communicating faculty’s lack of value as informed experts with the authority to articulate positions critical of capital and power is in every way a textbook neoliberal strategy:  privatize, deregulate, withdraw institutional support, and hand over (what Gross calls) a “vulnerable life” to the Invisible Hand of the Internet.  The beatings will continue until morale improves.

It is no wonder that students, 17 to 22 years old, only just commencing the project of forming themselves as moral and political agents, who witness their guides on that journey summarily dispatched with what Robinson accurately described as “some coward ass bullshit,” would be disinclined to mark the distinction between “citizen” and “consumer,” that is, would be incapable of understanding the difference between market values and moral values.

Kudos to Gross for articulating the many and varied harms that neoliberal education does to students, but let us not forget the harms it also does to those in whose care our students are entrusted. The “shut up and teach” managerial strategy we now see evidenced in higher education is a direct result of the same manufactured austerity conditions that Gross describes, in which members of the faculty-precariat are increasingly pressured to choose between their livelihoods and intellectual integrity, if not also their consciences.

Editor: Leah Bayens

Copyediting by Beth Connors-Manke

Featured Image: “Middle Way” by Brian Connors Manke