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Taking on the Pedagogy of Debt

By Jamie Owen Daniel

How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University by Jeffrey J. Williams. New York:
Fordham University Press, 2014.

How to Be an Intellectual
by Williams, Jeffrey J.
Trade Paperback


Neoliberalism seems like an abstraction, but practices like the casualization of professional labor and the enlistment of students into debt are neoliberalism in action.—Jeffrey J. Williams, “The Pedagogy of Debt”

This collection of extremely timely essays by Carnegie Mellon’s Jeffrey Williams could just as easily have been titled “the responsibilities of the intellectual.” There is irony in the title, but not much.

For the book is an example of just that, how to put the intellectual skills that one can develop and sharpen in the course of an academic career to use beyond the limited parameters of the classroom and academic publishing. In this, it offers an alternative to the too pervasive view that academics should “tend their own row” and keep their strictly (and, Williams might argue, narrowly) professional responsibilities separate and distinct from their responsibilities as citizens. Williams accepts no such limiting definitions. He argues for an engaged and muscular model of a “public intellectual”—not the briefly fashionable one who writes about academic concerns for a nonacademic audience, but rather one who advocates for the public good, including the public good that, at least until now, has been provided by higher education.

Like the Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams (no relation, except intellectually), he makes a point of weaving his own experiences as a working-class intellectual, a single parent, and a student-loan debtor into his broader analyses and conclusions. He does this not in a reductive or self-aggrandizing way but rather to constantly remind his readers that abstract policies have consequences that affect individual people, sometimes for a lifetime.

One section of this collection is given over to shorter essays on scholars in the humanities who contributed to what has been called “the moment of theory.” Williams served for many years as the editor of the Minnesota Review, and in that capacity solicited essays on the status of the profession in general and literary and cultural theory in particular. Most of the pieces in this section were originally published in the Chronicle Review and were perhaps more relevant at the time they were published than they might seem now, at least to readers who were not active in the so-called culture wars.

But the two themes running throughout the book that should be of interest to readers across the disciplines are addressed head-on in section 3, subtitled “The Predicament of the University.” The tightly focused essays in this section trace the increasingly pernicious impact of the neoliberal agenda on higher education, including the production of job seekers already deeply indebted upon graduation, and already accepting the ideological position that their success can be measured only in terms of how much money they make. These interdependent themes amount to what might be termed the structural transformation of the social meaning of a college or university degree.

In one of the most powerful essays in this section, “The Pedagogy of Debt,” Williams begins with the personal but expands outward: “I am a statistic. I am one of the more than 35,000,000 Americans on the rolls of student debt. Every month I write out a check for $660 to Sallie Mae. I simply abbreviate the entry in my checkbook as SM. It hurts.” Student debt, which Williams refers to as the “new paradigm of college funding,” has often been written about in terms of daunting statistics about how much students owe upon graduation. Debt obviously determines what one has to pay out of one’s earnings every month, but it also determines the conditions of everyday life. Can one ever travel to see family and friends? Buy a house or car? Take a vacation with the kids? Debt determines what one can eat, where one can live, and whether one can send one’s children to the colleges that would be best for them. (Williams notes that his Sallie Mae monthly payments are for both his own and his daughter’s college debt.)

Student debt limits options and in so doing negates precisely the broader range of career options that a college education is supposed to make possible, especially for students from less-privileged families.

The result is a brutal catch-22. Students go into debt to pay their college costs in the hope that their degrees will open doors to a more secure future and more job options. Instead, the debt they incur limits their options by requiring that they seek out jobs that pay well enough to cover their debt payments.

Thus, Williams maintains, student debt is no longer just a way of financing an education but also a “mode of pedagogy” that teaches students to accept the neoliberal framework as the only possible one. It teaches, first of all, that students are consumers of a product (a logic we hear increasingly from administrators and legislators) and that an institution of higher learning is obligated to provide them with a product that is marketable. It teaches career choices. The desirability of a “liberal education,” especially one grounded in the humanities, has fallen by the wayside, since such a choice is unlikely to ever help one land a job that will earn enough to pay off one’s debt. Instead, “the more rational choice is to work for a big corporation or go to law school.” Little wonder that nearly a quarter of students decide to major in business. The so-called crisis in the humanities is a manufactured one, and certainly is not caused by a sudden lack of student interest in philosophy, history, or literature.

The emergence of these two interdependent phenomena—skyrocketing levels of student debt and the financialization of higher education structures and priorities that we all have seen determining the decisions made by campus administrations—represents “a shift in the idea of higher education as a public good to a private service” and “from a social good to an individual good.”

How does this process affect the broader social fabric, the sense of a shared responsibility for the “common good”? Student debt teaches that the worth of a person upon graduation is in his or her debt-to-earnings ratio. It teaches students to internalize a sense that one is successful only in terms of whether one is, or is not, what cultural theorist Paul Smith in his 1997 book Millennial Dreams termed a “subject of value.” Once internalized, this model of identity appears to be quite natural and then becomes normative, giving permission to focus on self-interest rather than what one might contribute to society. One of neoliberalism’s first promoters, Margaret Thatcher, famously remarked that “there is no society, there are only individuals.” In the university as it is increasingly being restructured by neoliberalism, self-interested individualism comes to seem like second nature, and the debt that so many students owe only reinforces the advantages of thinking that way.

And, for the neoliberal definition of such a self-interested individual “subject of value” to be realized and internalized, it has to be seen as the desirable alternative to its opposite; those who, whether by choice or because of circumstances they cannot control, do not literally buy into this privileged status are disenfranchised, limited, and excluded. As we hear reinforced by conservative pundits and politicians ad nauseum, such people “deserve” to be where they are, and the rest of us need not feel responsible for them.

Williams closes this collection with a clutch of thoughtful ruminations on “the personal and the critical.” Here his debt to Raymond Williams and to his teacher and mentor, the late Michael Sprinker, to whom he dedicates a moving appreciation, is most evident.

Columbia University professor and very public intellectual Edward Said once wrote that “nothing . . . is more reprehensible than those habits of mind of the intellectual that induce avoidance, the characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial. . . . You want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate. . . . If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.”

Jeffrey Williams has provided ample evidence here of a passionate and principled intellectual engagement with the political and financial interests that are combining forces to gut higher education. There could not be a better time for all of us working in the academy to follow his example.

Jamie Owen Daniel is director of organizing at the AAUP. Her e-mail address is [email protected]  

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