Liberal Education

The New Era of "Hire" Education

There is no denying that colleges and universities are being dramatically transformed in ways that effectively dismantle endeavors that were once the bedrock of academic life. To point this out is not to wax nostalgic about “the good old days,” or to call for a return to outmoded models of liberal education, or to suggest that certain disciplines have a monopoly on liberal learning; after all, even philosophy can be taught in illiberal ways. Rather, it is simply to draw attention to the basic fact that the professionalization of undergraduate curricula—resulting, for example, in an explosion in BS degrees intended to prepare students for postgraduate programs—has supplanted almost entirely the more modest, but arguably more essential, purpose of higher education. Indeed, the very rhetoric now used to promote liberal education among students is leading predictably to a corruption of the values traditionally held to be fundamental to liberal education, values such as self-awareness, imagination, creativity, curiosity, perceptual acuity, and the like.

It is increasingly expected that every sphere of social life should be justified in terms of market efficiency. Accordingly, colleges and universities now “sell” their “product” with a promise to enhance the earning potential of their “customers,” and students view their time at college as, first and foremost, a way to land a “lucrative” job. The federal government is adding fuel to this fire by insisting that individual colleges and universities should be rated based on the return on investment of their customers. Producing investment bankers is good; producing social workers and teachers is not so good. Where the intuitive obviousness of market wisdom is taken for granted, even “friends” of liberal education appear unprepared to defend the academic enterprise in anything but market terms. We have created a mutually reinforcing circle: economic sustainability requires that colleges and universities engage in advertisement that employs reductionist, market-centered characterizations of educational purpose, and students insist on the fulfillment of these promises.

The ongoing promulgation and general acceptance of this very narrow view of education is the result of a long and complex process. But where education is valued instrumentally as a means to gain employment or improve job performance, the importance of self-reflection and exposure to courses of study that challenge deep habits, customs, and traditions may be undermined. In lieu of any robust defense of moral and political transformation as a central purpose of undergraduate education, critics like David Horowitz, Lynne Cheney, and Stanley Fish have begun to pile on to the crisis by suggesting that any exposure to disturbing or challenging viewpoints amounts to indoctrination. Surely there have been and are instances of indoctrination taking place on college campuses. But there is an important distinction to be made between indoctrinating students, on the one hand, and stimulating students to make or (re)consider their moral, political, or existential commitments, on the other. Denying such a distinction means that the transformational dimension of education is purged nearly outright; education comes to be valued in a most horrifyingly “conservative” way as merely an accommodation or affirmation of existing moral, political, or existential identities.

We must find ways of resisting what should now be obvious, namely, the subordination of the traditional college or university mission—i.e., the provision of a form of education that promotes, among other things, the pursuit of truth, moral excellence, and justice—to the economic gamesmanship of university competitors, the petty politics of interdepartmental squabbles, economic competition between departmental peers (say, between adjuncts who are forced to compete for scarce class opportunities), and dogmatic stand offs between administrators and faculty. Lost in this collective deterioration is our ability to pursue any genuinely defensible conception of education. But, even more, we are at risk of allowing “internal” competition to compromise the effectiveness with which we pursue even the stunted but now dominant conception of education as a preparation for job-market competition.

Understanding the processes of commodification

Central to the much-needed self-criticism is an honest attempt to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the processes of commodification. In general, markets often appear to us as morally and ethically neutral ways of making tough collective decisions about how to distribute money, resources, and services. What could be more neutral, after all, than an approach that allows each individual—not the king, not the politburo—to decide what to buy and what to sell? Yet, we must consider that the very act of selling certain goods can alter, in morally problematic ways, the meaning, purpose, and valuation of the goods we buy. How can this point be made persuasively?

In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), Michael Sandel asks us to consider things that cannot be bought, and he takes friendship to be an obvious example. Friendship is not a good that can distributed via markets, since the very act of selling a friendship turns it into something other than friendship. Just imagine a friend saying, “I am your friend and will continue to offer you my friendship for a small fee.” This simple example shows that in order for friendship to be what it is, it cannot be bought and sold. Similarly, an impartial judicial decision would not retain its identity if it were to become an object of market exchange. There are de facto limits to markets, because there are some things that money cannot buy.

Other types of “goods” can be sold, though, and when they are, their meaning and purpose along with our ways of valuing them are changed. Consider the example given by Sandel of a Swedish community solicited by the Swedish government to store nuclear waste. In order to get a sense of how many in the community would be willing to have the waste stored in their neighborhood, the government conducted a survey. Fifty-one percent of the population was found to be willing to shoulder the burden. An economic firm hired by the government recommended that, in order to increase the number of citizens willing to store the waste, the government should offer an economic incentive. Yet after the government offered to pay roughly $8,000 per citizen, the number of citizens willing to store the nuclear waste dropped to just 25 percent. How are we to explain this phenomenon?

One hypothesis was that the government’s willingness to pay had altered citizens’ assessment of the risk, creating the perception that storing the waste was riskier than initially imagined. This would explain why fewer citizens were willing to store the waste when their willingness was purchased than when it was solicited for free. But a second survey revealed that the perceived risk had stayed about the same. The difference, it turned out, was that the very act of buying the willingness of citizens to store waste had changed the meaning of the act. Citizens reported that when they had volunteered to store the waste for free, they had viewed the act as patriotic, as deeply tied to values associated with service to one’s country. But when the $8,000 incentive was offered, many citizens began to view the act not as patriotic, but as a commodity service. That is, the very act of using market mechanisms to incentivize willingness to store waste had altered the meaning and purpose of the act. The economic incentive, as Sandel puts it, had “crowded out” moral motives. Far from displaying value neutrality, the use of a market mechanism had transmitted a very precise way of valuing the act. Once this shift of meaning and purpose occurred, the question of whether citizens were willing to sell the service at all was opened up in a way that compelled a sizeable portion of citizens to answer no.

These arguments need not be given in any orthodox anticapitalist spirit. There is no question that stable and just societies need to make use of markets in some capacity. But the recognition that economic approaches smuggle in an implicit teleological view—a precise way of valuing the goods being exchanged within markets—forces us to confront directly the question of how we, as a society, believe specific goods should be valued. These arguments do not lead to a rejection of all markets, but rather they demonstrate the need for democratic discussion and collective decision making about the proper role and limits of markets. What sorts of things should be for sale, and what sorts should not be? We cannot pretend that a market approach is a neutral mechanism for making such decisions. It is not. There is a need, then, to confront directly the absolute unavoidability of, and our subsequent responsibility for, deciding the meaning, purpose, and ways of valuing specific goods. What does this mean for colleges and universities?

Education as a commodity

If education is a commodity, it is a peculiar kind of commodity. It is something that too often people are willing to pay for, but perfectly content not to receive. Here, perhaps, the college or university is analogous to the fitness center. The proprietors of fitness centers know quite well that the majority of their customers will not use their facilities in a manner sufficient to achieve the very goal that explains and justifies their existence. In fact, it could be argued that they depend on this gap between the fantasy of their customers and the ultimate reality in order to make decisions about how many machines to allocate, how much space to maintain, how many employees to hire, and so on. In other words, if the number of new customers signing up in January, after the onslaught of New Year’s resolutions, were actually to follow through with their plans, then the fitness center itself would need to be reconfigured in its material practice. But, predictably, this explosion of activity dies down by February, once the abstract desire for fitness meets with the concrete realities of exertion and effort. Effective business management accounts for consumer fantasy.

Maybe instead of demanding an education, students/consumers are really demanding a product that simply provides access to the job market. It is this particular use-value—and not the transformative effects of a liberal education—that many college-goers expect to receive from their educational institutions. In other words, what they are actually paying for is hire learning, not higher learning. And if the central purpose is to gain employment, then education becomes a kind of side effect—a derivative outcome, at best.

In this context, there are quite a few questions that should be raised and debated across higher education. First, do colleges and universities provide “education” as a derivative effect of their students’ quest to gain access to employment? Or is the primary focus on intellectual, moral, and socio-emotional transformation—recognizing, all the while, that although gainful employment is incidental, it is not accidental? Second, is it the case that, despite the fact that employment is by and large the motivating factor for many students, colleges and universities can use this source of motivation as raw psychological material to compel students to engage in transformational practices of education, as distinct from more instrumental practices that lead to credentialing? Third, insofar as students are demanding access to employment, does the college or university experience make these expectations more realistic? Here we must entertain the possibility that the institution is treading on what are ultimately the fantastic expectations of its consumers. Fourth, by the same token, to what extent do colleges and universities knowingly accommodate student/consumer fantasies about both education and employment opportunity in their routine operations? And, relatedly, to what extent do such fantasies determine how much money is allocated for particular programs and services—or for climbing walls, suite-like residential facilities, and the like? Lastly, to what extent does the emphasis on values associated with economic efficiency silently presuppose the idea that the undergraduate education is about hire learning, instead of higher learning?

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Miguel Martinez-Saenz is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Otterbein University. Steven Schoonover Jr. is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and an instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College.

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