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Caleb Godsey

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A Threatened Education

It is the liberal arts education that we are told holds the keys to a lifetime of
affluence and security. However, admittance into this institution comes at a price. The
realities of tuition, room & board, and the miscellaneous costs tacked onto the bill each
semester brings serious financial concerns. These concerns lead to the inevitable
question that all liberal arts students are asked: what are you going to do with that? It is
a question that comes not only from practicality, but also mistrust. The cost of a liberal
arts education is not to be trusted, unless such an investment yields quantifiable results.
In short, will such a degree give you a job? And most importantly, will that job provide
immense financial gains -- how else are you to payback the loans used to attain such a
degree?
This is how the popular understanding of education operates. It will only trust
results; results that end in six figures annually. This approach to the liberal arts comes
from the commodification of higher education. The marriage of business and the
American University is a dangerous union that reduces the educational aspirations of its
students to a bottom line. This commodification is the source of the identity crisis faced
by the American University. It is a struggle between the claims of educational intrinsic
value over the literal cash value each student represents. So what are the liberal arts?
Understanding the roots of the liberal arts education and tracking its progression into
the corporate behemoth it has become, will illuminate the threat it faces.

Caleb Godsey
Artes Liberales. Literally the Latin translation reads as liberal education.1 This
title can be broken down further into its Greek roots. The two Greek words one
commonly finds attributed to the liberal arts, are and . The first
concerns the nature of the student who participates in such an education. E
then literally translates as fit for a free man, liberal2. While is translated as an
art or skill, with strong connotations of being taught or acquired. So when these two
words are applied together, we create the liberal arts. The focus on the etymological
origins of the liberal arts is important, since it puts such an education into a historical
context.
It was free citizens with a leisure to study that participated in the liberal
education. These citizens, by their nature of being free, did not work. Instead, they were
called upon to participate in and uphold civic duties within the polis. Therefore,
spending their leisure time in pursuit of the liberal arts provided a type of intellectual
training; this would equip them with the ability to live freely through the mind. This is
where an important implication can be made about the liberal arts. It was not meant for
work. Remember that the historical distinction between free citizen and slave is work.
The Greco-Roman connotations of work have to do with the labor of animals. As noted
in The Working Life,slavery makes people less than human because they are unable to
exercise the capacities that make humans distinct from brute beasts3. Slaves were no

Bruce Kimball, Orators & Philosophers. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986), 13.

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3

Bruce Kimball, Orators & Philosophers. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986), 20.

Joanne B. Ciulla, The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work. (New York: Three Rivers Press,
2000), 75.

Caleb Godsey
different to the Greeks or Romans than field animals. The freedom of ancient Greeks, to
leisurely study the arts, was built upon the backs of their slaves. Therefore students of
the liberal arts were never meant to work, but rather to be free from such animalistic
burdens.
The aristocratic nature of the liberal arts has for the most part been eliminated by
our modern fight for civil rights; creating a far more egalitarian academia. No longer is
the technique of free men limited to nobles, or even men for that matter. Instead, an
attempt to integrate all walks of society into the liberal arts has been made. To be sure,
there are a tremendous amount of minorities of race, gender, and socioeconomics, that
have fallen through the egalitarian cracks of education. However in the main, we can
claim success in the general equality of access to some form of education, as compared
to the liberal arts origins of a distinction between free men and slaves. But with all these
wonderful strides in progress being made, the university is still under attack, and its
students bare the brunt of what we will call academic capitalism.
Academic capitalism refers to the business relationships universities have
established with large corporations. It is a utilitarian modeled view of education, which
seeks to perfect skills of practical benefit to industry and any other professional
endeavor. This relationship usually involves the exchange of patented university
research, for millions in corporate funding. This academic capitalism was most notable
in the Novartis-Berkeley alliance. In November of 1998, the pharmaceutical titan
Novartis sought a research deal with the University of Berkeley4. This deal specifically
concerned the genetic engineering of crops. Essentially, under their agreement, Novartis
4

Jennifer Washburn, University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. (New York: Basic Books,
2005), 7.

Caleb Godsey
gave Berkeley $25 million over five years to fund Berkeleys Department of Plant and
Microbial Biology. Novartis received first right in negotiating licenses on 1/3 of any
department discoveries -- including the results of any of the departments publicly
funded endeavors. This caused a major backlash from the local community and
students. The idea of a private corporation buying an influence over a public university's
research was unsettling. It raised implications of private monopoly over the universitys
potential discoveries -- discoveries thought to be owned by the public.
Imagine what corporate shares in any university, private or public, could mean
for not only society but the students and faculty of these universities. The more
influence a corporation is able to purchase within the university, the less influence its
faculty will have. These are faculty who will compete with the overwhelming amount of
administrative staff hired to negotiate current corporate ties, as well as future ones.
Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg discusses this exact administrative pandemic in
his book The Fall of Faculty. He notes that:
Administrations have expanded at an amazing pace. Administrators are up 85
percent in

growth, while the number of other professionals employed by

universities has grown

240 percent. Their share of university budgets has grown by

similar margins5.
The administrators purpose is not aimed at educational enrichment of students -- they
do not teach. Rather, their purpose is to market the school to corporate industry. This is
where raised tuition comes into play. As universities continue to shift identities into a
quasi educational corporate mercenary, they develop more administrative costs. The

Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 175.

Caleb Godsey
hundreds of thousands in tuition go mainly to the salaries of the endless members of
administrative staff, as well as to the future marketing of cash cow students. Taller more
modern buildings are erected, professional sporting arenas are invested in, and the
corporate food conglomerates are invited into the modern dining halls. The shift in
liberal education toward corporate shares, administrative costs, and the marketability of
commodities over educational quality, are all products of academic capitalism.
It is academic capitalism that has forced universities to financially exploit their
students like any corporation would treat its customers. The driving force is no longer
liberal education for society; but rather it is profit at the expense of society. Academic
capitalism is what has caused the vocational and utilitarian treatment of the liberal arts.
When education becomes a product to be sold to the highest bidder, its value is then
understood relative to the amount it was paid for. No longer is learning valued as an end
in itself, instead only so far as it succeeds in being a means to an end -- that end being a
job which can pay off such an expensive means.
Obviously the beginnings of the liberal arts were extremely unfair and unjust.
Our societies have made tremendous gains in social, political, and educational equality.
Nevertheless, there is an important rationale to be taken from the art of freedom. That
rationale is the ideal of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. This is closely drawn from
Aristotelian thought, placing the highest happiness achievable in the pursuit of
theoretical knowledge or contemplation . . . for intelligence is the highest possession we
have in us6. It is this contemplation and capacity for reasoning that I would argue is so
special. These cognitive abilities are the only real distinction we have from other
6 Aristotle,

Nicomachean Ethics. trans. Bartlett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 224.

Caleb Godsey
animals. Humanity is able to reason and reflect before or after we act, allowing for
intention and ultimately meaning behind what we do or say.
The function then so valuable to the liberal arts, is its cultivation of our
contemplative and reasoning minds. Its core purpose is to provide an autonomy of the
mind. A mind that is not subjected solely to the authority or traditions set before it. This
mind is able to discern the intentions of others because it is constantly discerning its
own. It is self-aware. It is self-reliant. It is free. As a definition was wonderfully put by a
former president of Yale University:
Free -- the liberty of the mind free to explore itself, to draw itself out, to
connect with other minds and spirits in the quest for truth. Its goal is to
train the whole person to be at once intellectually discerning and humanly
flexible, tough minded and openhearted; to be responsive to the new and
responsible for values that make us civilized. A liberal education desires to
freedom of the mind that will also contribute, in its measure, to the

foster
freedom of

others.7
It would be impossible to place a price on the freedom proposed by the liberal arts.
Quantifying its value seems unimaginable. We live in a country that places the idea of
freedom and equality together. Both are inherently considered to be human rights. It
would seem contradictory to sell freedom or equality. Yet isnt that exactly what is
occurring in the liberal arts? It is the sale of the educational art of freedom. This
academic capitalism is the present danger that preys on both the faculty and students of
American Universities. This commodification of higher education is the fruits of our
7

Giamatti, A. Bartlett, A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. (New York: Norton &
Company Ltd, 1990), 109.

Caleb Godsey
simultaneous love affairs with College and the Market8. We have lost sight of just how
disastrous the cost/benefit presumption of our liberal education has become. This no
doubt is a direct result of the marketed shift education has been forced into.

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8

Thomas Frank, Academic Fight Song, The Baffler, no. 23 (2013) : 5.

Caleb Godsey
Bibliography

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Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins.
Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 2011.

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Ciulla, Joanna. The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work.
NewYork: Three

Rivers Press, 2000.

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Frank, Thomas. Academy Fight Song. The Baffler, no. 23 (2013) : 5.

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Giamatti, A. Bartlett. A Free and Ordered Space: the Real World of the University. New
York: Norton & Company Ltd, 1990.

Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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Kimball, Bruce. Orators & Philosophers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1986.

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Washburn, Jennifer. University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.
New York: Basic Books, 2005.

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Caleb Godsey

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