When states cut public education funding: the problems with _Unmaking Education_

In December I took to social media with a research query: what’s a good historical account of how American states have defunded public higher education?  Helpful people came up with one leading candidate: Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011; Goodreads).

Newfield_UnmakingthePublicUniIt’s an ambitious and powerful book, deeply researched, and offering a vital, carefully developed account to satisfy my query.  It’s also especially relevant in this year of Ferguson. But its flaws run deep, resulting in a too-narrow vision that ultimately does not sufficiently explain how American states cut funding to public higher education.

First, the thesis and its strengths.  Newfield argues that conservatives launched the culture wars in order to weaken public universities, sapping their public support and enabling their corporatization.  This strategy sought to protect and extend conservative political power, while cutting down to size not only liberal politics but the middle class itself.

To oversimplify somewhat, conservative elites who had been threatened by the postwar rise of the college-educated economic majority have put that majority back in its place.

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 Their roundabout weapon has been the culture wars on higher education in general, and on progressive cultural trends in the public universities that create and enfranchise the mass middle class.(5)

Already in that passage you can see a strong claim for public higher ed, awarding it a powerful place in shaping American society.   Public universities created the middle class.

Newfield traces this out in extensive detail, starting back in the middle of the 20th century.  Much of Unmaking concerns the ideologies around the culture wars, including careful readings of documents on all sides of those struggles, from the Powell memo (53) to Dinesh D’Souza and Arthur Schlesinger.  We review the 1980s and 1990s battles over PC. We see the culture wars driving privatization of education (177) and the rise of knowledge management (141).

Allied to the culture warriors on the right was, for Newfield, a definition of the economy in terms of knowledge instead of production.  This actually boosts the role of finance in shaping all areas of American life (127).  The middle class ends up losing in this new economy (24), and the working class suffers as well: “the working-class… suffered the first wave of deindustrialization.  Their white collar cousins did little to help them…”(4)

The crux of those culture wars, the main battlefield upon which all of these forces could contest, was race.  “Racial inequality and privatization were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the counterrevolution.” (270)  Unmaking sees conservatives appealing to various forms of white racism, and leading academic restructuring which reduces the economic and social status of whites and hispanics.  Newfield gives a convincing account of how race-based affirmative action’s court defeats led to a reduction in the proportion of blacks and hispanics enrolling in higher education (66).  He sees diversity as a weak fallback position, an unchallenging and ultimately conservative-supporting strategy (chapter 7).  In 2015 as we grapple with rising inequality, declining median income, and fallout from anti-black police brutality, this feels like an especially powerful model.

And yet.

It’s a model too narrow to stand up to reflection.

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To begin with, Newfield’s focus on race avoids much of the actual content of the culture wars and the PC battles.  Gender doesn’t play a significant role in the book, which would surprise anyone who lived through this period.  Abortion, perhaps the single most powerful mobilizing force on the right since 1980, has no impact.  Immigration is likewise at best a bit player in this account.  Moreover, “race” here doesn’t allow Asian-Americans a role – that’s a general problem in American discussions of race, but I won’t let the author off the hook for it.

This historical tunnel vision reveals other problems.  For Newfield cultural conservatives assert themselves over liberals in the 1980s, triumphing after their defeat in the 1960s and early 70s.  But the late 70s, with its variety of crises, the undoing of the Carter administration, and the walloping suffered by American liberalism, don’t exist in the book.  Which makes Reagan’s triumph mysterious.  Similarly Unmaking sees the left lose battles in the 1990s, without mentioning the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the enormous blow that dealt to socialism and related political creeds around the world.

The book wants us to pay attention to economics, but doesn’t allow for developments beyond its thesis.  So the decline of public funding to public universities drives the middle class down – a large claim, given the long arc of increasing enrollments over the book’s timeline.  But other forces, arguably bigger ones, don’t have much of an impact.  Globalization orbits quietly around the book’s narrative, yet it clearly had enormous impact on American manufacturing jobs.  The decline of unions, especially in the private sector, knocked out that route to the middle class.  The rise of the financial sector to a position of vast economic and political clout occurred outside the range of the culture wars.  Automation as an economic and social force, rather than an ideology, doesn’t have an impact.

Without taking these events and developments seriously Newfield’s account becomes too narrow to stand.  Worse, it makes the American public a hypnotized and even stupid mass, bereft of agency and inexplicably disagreeing with a shining liberal message.  In fact, Unmaking doesn’t spend time with state politics beyond California’s, not allowing us to see what other possible decision-making processes could have led 49 other states to decide to reduce public education funding.  Perhaps other topics influences legislatures. Did public health care costs swamp budgets as medical costs grew generally through this period?  How strong was the impact of the escalating war on drugs and the immense prison system?  Unmaking is good on ideology, but poor on basic political science.

I want to dwell on this point a little longer, since it connects with another flaw in the book.

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Newfield repeatedly argues that the public could not make major decisions or even think politically without the productions of academic humanists.  To cite one example,

[A]fter two decades of culture wars… middle-class whites now lacked the cultural knowledge to link their own prosperity to cross-racial equality.  Not could they link this equality to the social intervention that historically had created it. (121)

It’s one thing to celebrate the humanities’ contributions to public discourse, and quite another to see them in such an overweening light.  Newfield leaves no room for journalists, popular press writers, religious thinkers, or politicians to add to the national conversation in a non-reactionary way.  Nor does he allow people to just think of this stuff on their own.  It’s damningly condescending.

His love of the humanities leads the author into some strange places.  Newfield clearly fights for one side of C.P. Snow’s two cultures, and has little patience or interest in the other side.  Indeed, he finds Snow too even-handed, and wants us to think in terms of an opposition like this:

a conflict between mathematical algorithms, associated with efficiency and control, and narrative creativity, associated with autonomy, desire, human relations, and human rights. (25)

Humanists versus the evil machine-things, in other words.  Similarly he paraphrases with some approval Lyotard as seeing technology not being interested in “the true, the just, or the beautiful… but to efficiency.” (44)  Clearly Newfield doesn’t know any hackers, nor listen to STEM practitioners describe their work using concepts of elegance, creativity, desire, etc.

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One of the book’s strengths is its detailed description of the University of California system over several generations of change.  Clearly we benefit from Newfield’s personal experience within that large and influential establishment.  But once again the book becomes too narrow.  We barely see any other states, aside from a short look at the University of Michigan (174ff) (my alma mater).  California is obviously important, yet it’s never been a predictive template for the rest of the nation.  Worse, within California Newfield isn’t interested in the rest of that public higher education system.  The many California State University campuses and the community college system merit barely any mentions in Unmaking‘s nearly 300 pages.  At best this is just problematic, and at worst an instance of academic snobbery.

There are smaller problems in the book, nits I couldn’t resist picking, and which often instance these larger issues.  Newfield sees the post-WWII period as a fine one for academic freedom (221), somehow ignoring Ellen Schrecker‘s vital work on how universities aided or caved into McCarthyism. He sees Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web as somehow part of Silicon Valley (198), rather than being developed by a British scientist in a Swiss research installation, CERN.  He thinks research universities are deeply concerned with undergraduate teaching, to the point of offering something like personalized, research-based education for everyone (191).  He opines about a well developed internet discourse in… 1979 (45).

So in the end Unmaking the Public University gave me some answers to my question about defunding higher education.  It makes an interesting case about the culture wars and their links to other forces.  Its close readings of political and theoretical texts gave me new insights.  Chapter 13’s argument about the humanities being a better financial deal for universities than the sciences is fascinating.  And Newfield clearly lays out solutions to the problems he outlines (265ff).

But his laser-tight focus on the culture wars-neoliberalism-UC complex doesn’t shed enough light on how American states decided to privatize public higher education.  Unmaking needs a companion volume in political science or political economy, one that does the hard work of tracking how so many state legislatures not only made the same decision, but carried that choice across decades and all kinds of political vicissitudes.  Is there such a thing?

(cross-posted to Goodreads)

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4 Responses to When states cut public education funding: the problems with _Unmaking Education_

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    UC-centric…of course. I was at UC Davis for the second part of graduate school (comparative literature ~ quite a contrast with part 1 in Louisiana I might add) and should have factored that in more. Or perhaps, somewhat acculturated in spite of myself, I unconsciously shrugged it off as natural.

    Good point about CP Snow’s two cultures too…I’d been thinking about their continuing relevance although I would guess few humanists have read the entire series.

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