Commodifying the Life of the Mind

As a long-time leader in higher ed unionism, I was recently asked to comment on the transformative changes taking place in American higher education. To answer, I reflected on my nearly sixty years in higher education. I was a working-class kid from New York City who went to CCNY, where tuition was free. Yes, free. Free or low-cost tuition was the norm in American public colleges and universities in the 1960s. My expectations of college were probably typical of my generation. I expected to get a good job when I graduated, but college was also an intellectual adventure, a new experience for me. I was exposed to big ideas that changed my life and made learning for learning’s sake a value.

Millennia ago Aristotle posed two kinds of value. The first and most basic he called use value, a product – abstract or concrete – made to fill a need. In other words, a use value is a good produced solely for use. For example, the use value of a coat is to provide protection against the elements. Making the coat is an end in itself. The second kind of value Aristotle called exchange value. Exchange values are products – abstract or concrete – made to be exchanged for something of even more value or benefit. A corporation may make coats, and coats are useful, but the purpose of making them is to make a profit by selling coats above the cost of production. The product, in this case a coat, is a means toward the end of gaining profit.  Using these Aristotelian criteria, education is a use value. In strict Aristotelian terms, the purpose of higher education is education itself, but in the real world education has always had exchange value as well. People of my generation could pursue both values: the life of the mind and a job.

In the three decades of post-WWII economic prosperity, higher education was mostly treated as a use value for students that brought significant additional advantages to society. Consider the G.I. Bill that sent the Greatest Generation to college, shortly followed by the expansion of higher learning institutions to meet the influx of Boomers, particularly public colleges and universities with government funding subsidizing free or low tuition costs. That was then, when all levels of government – federal, state, and local – viewed an educated populace as an investment in a future work force not only of teachers, doctors, and engineers, but artists, writers, musicians, and even philosophers.

To understand where higher ed is today and where it’s heading, just look at what’s happening in my home state, New York. SUNY Potsdam faces a nine-million-dollar budget gap because state legislators with other funding priorities have slowly turned the spigot off funding public higher education, and bearable tuition hikes are insufficient to cover the shortfall. Potsdam’s president recently announced retrenchments in fourteen programs, including the prestigious Crane School of Music, because they didn’t have sufficient enrollment to pay for themselves. But SUNY isn’t alone in cutting programs in the liberal arts. A recent New York Times article suggests that most policy makers, educators, and students no longer believe a liberal arts degree is worth the cost and points to the retrenchment of arts and humanities programs in institutions, both public and private, across the United States.

As government funding falls and tuition increases and then increases even more, students faced with rising loan debt understandably come to view college as vocational training, not intellectual exploration. To policy makers, college administrators, students, and employers, education is no longer a value in itself. Vocational programs such as computer science, business, nursing, and communications are rapidly replacing the arts and humanities. The emphasis on job training rather than intellectual exploration doesn’t nurture students’ ability to think critically about the world we live in and, instead, intensifies the one-dimensional society Herbert Marcuse wrote about in the 1960s. As the Provost of Miami University of Ohio exclaimed as she put foreign languages, American Studies, Art History and other  programs in the arts on the chopping block, “There’s so much pressure about return on investment.” This focus on ROI is equivalent to that scene in Barton Fink where the John Goodman character screams, “I’ll show you the life of the mind! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” as he burns the building down.

Reliance on exchange value criteria places a premium on accounting standards as the yardstick to determine educational policies. A good example is class size. In terms of exchange value, a lecture hall holding hundreds of students is significantly more productive than a class of a dozen students. The question of which environment is more conducive to learning is irrelevant once exchange value becomes the measure of productivity. In this context, policies leading to large class sizes, the abolition of under-enrolled courses in the humanities, arts and foreign languages, the use of part-time adjuncts to replace tenured faculty, and the rise of on-line learning become understandable.

Also understandable is why students have come to view themselves as consumers. In my student days, every college required a slew of foundation courses in natural and social sciences, language, and the humanities. For many students facing mounting loan debt, the main purpose of attending college now is to get a degree, not an education, so they shop around for programs that provide the most direct route to credentials and a job. This college has a language requirement? I’m going somewhere else, thank you. Similarly, if today’s students find new interests in college, they can’t easily afford to change majors at the expense of additional time and tuition. And, not surprisingly, in their role as consumers, students often view grades as just one more commodity: I paid, so I’m entitled to that A.

This swing from viewing education as a use value to an exchange value reflects larger changes in America’s political and economic structures over the last forty-plus years, including the outsourcing of the nation’s manufacturing base, the decline of unions, the subsequent shrinking of the middle class, and the unprecedented rise of economic inequality. In New York state, for instance, where legislators once spent lavishly to build the SUNY and CUNY systems, they’ve now allocated even more millions into building prisons even as the tax base shrank and told campus administrators to tighten their belts.

This commodification of higher education will not only continue but become more extreme, at least in public institutions. Elite colleges and flagship state universities with huge endowments can afford to focus on education as a value, but the shift from education to training will only accelerate at most public campuses. English departments are fast becoming primarily service programs. Theater, music, and Classics departments are becoming unaffordable luxuries. This trend isn’t inevitable. Just look at European countries where learning is still valued and public higher education is, for the most part, still free. But as long as higher education is seen as just another commodity in the United States, the conflagration of the liberal arts will only continue.

William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is a retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by William.