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.’” 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.” 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.