Welcome to the neoliberal arts

By CONNOR WERTZ and HANNAH LAGA ABRAM

Two weeks ago, we witnessed the faculty vote to maintain the opt-in credit/no credit grading system for this semester. The vote proved that even in a time of crisis, Middlebury College continues to conduct itself in a neoliberal manner, emphasizing “financial-sustainability” over the well-being of its students, staff and community. Arguments surrounding graduate school requirements, individuals’ “right to choose” and sustained academic rigor exhausted themselves against a virtual student movement calling for empathy and equity — and won. What does that say about us? In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, this grading decision offers us a painfully poignant lense to examine who we as a college, student body and community are.

We do not wish to revive an old debate, but rather to contextualize its result in order to answer the question many students have been asking themselves: how did this happen?

We believe that Middlebury, by upholding an opt-in grading system this semester, has demonstrated that it is a business first and a college second, caring more about its reputation than its ability to educate. The story we tell ourselves of a close-knit community striving for academic excellence together has been supplanted by an incessant drive to progress as marketable individuals, rather than as an educated community

Welcome to the neoliberal arts.

We are well aware that “neoliberalism” is a loaded word with more definitions than there are students at Middlebury.  

For the purpose of our understanding, however, neoliberalism is an ideology – one with resulting policies and praxes – that reorders social interactions not around a polis, or a community, but around the market. When Margaret Thatcher said “there’s no such thing as society” she meant it literally; under neoliberal logic, there are only rational, individual actors.

It is difficult to imagine prioritizing community over the individual when we’ve been fed a culture of competition since we could stack toy rings on a pole or kick a soccer ball (or, for that matter, get into a college with an acceptance rate under 20%). So although it was disappointing to see our faculty and administration bow to the forces of competition and individuality, we should have expected it.

But the question we’ve been asking ourselves is “why?” In our capitalist economy, the dominant story of success includes attending graduate school and securing a high-paying job. These markers of “success” profoundly shape our education. Liberal arts schools like Middlebury tend to pride themselves on the diversity and interrelation of their disciplines, claiming to holistically educate students and create well-rounded individuals who are “good people” as well as good additions to the labor force. 

Despite this, we opted for a grading system that aligns with the core priorities of neoliberalism and its narrative of success. By prioritizing letter grades, we have proven that we value competition over cooperation. By arguing that the current grading model affords every student freedom of choice, we have again overlooked the question of who is able to choose. This again disadvantages those in our community who are in situations where they have no choice, making it clear that we value the rights of the individual over those of the collective. 

In this way, we perpetuate the inequalities within our community by continuing to privilege the privileged and disadvantage the disadvantaged. By choosing the option that maintains the status quo, we have chosen to continue preparing students to participate in, instead of resist, the system that is now falling apart around us.

It can seem like Middlebury is too small, and we are too powerless, to make any practical stabs at creating an education not beholden to neoliberal beliefs. However, we strongly believe that any choice to shift outside these narratives is a necessary step toward action. We had an opportunity to change our narrative, and unlike comparable institutions   Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale we failed.

We do not want to trivialize the concerns expressed by our fellow students, nor imply that our faculty and administration have acted with anything but the best of intentions.  We also want to recognize that spending these weeks online has proven to us over and again the aspects of community that supersede our hyper-individualized education the daily acts of friendship, kindness and love that we are missing so often right now.

Yet it is in crises like these that communities must reimagine and renegotiate their underlying values and internalized narratives. As we do so, it is becoming clear that Middlebury is still stubbornly stuck in the ideology of neoliberal arts. We have the capacity to change, and the obligation to do so when members of our community are suffering

We love Middlebury. As students who call this place home, we hope it can take this moment of crisis to change in powerful and lasting ways.

Connor Wertz is a member of the class of 2022. Hannah Laga Abram is a member of the class of 2023.