Book of the Week - Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class

Alan Ryan reflects on the States we're in

September 18, 2008

Unmaking the Public University reminds one how much more interesting American academic debates are than their British counterparts. They are not more carefully conducted, more elegantly argued or more replete with academic virtues. Indeed, Unmaking the Public University is about far too many disparate issues, and the author's conviction that they all hang together is hard to share. Nonetheless, arguments within and about American academia tend to exhibit a much stronger sense that something really important is at stake than their British counterparts; this is no exception.

In Christopher Newfield's universe, good and evil are satisfyingly arrayed against each other, ideals triumph or are trampled in the mud. Those of us who feel that we have been reduced to one more part of the machinery of the social reproduction of semi-skilled wage labour are reminded that it was once possible to believe that publicly funded higher education would be a central element in bringing about a genuinely egalitarian society. Now, whether it is under the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton or under the new Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the rich will lead lives quite unlike those of their less well-off fellow citizens, and they will suffer not the least anxiety that what Christopher Lasch described as "the revolt of the elites" will end by radicalising the less well-off.

The territory in which Newfield is interested is the public research university, epitomised by the University of California, Berkeley during the 1960s and 1970s. It was Berkeley and its peers - Ann Arbor and Madison, for instance - that offered the prospect of a more than merely adequate education to students of any background. In their heyday, these places attracted the best researchers in their disciplines, and faculty quality was extremely high.

In many fields Berkeley is still the best university in the world, but the resources available to pass that excellence on to students have been drastically reduced. Since higher education has become a competitive business, it is not just the absolute reduction in resources that matters, but the inadequacy of public expenditure in contrast with what private universities can access.

Newfield's aim is not only to rub our noses in the fact that the generosity of California towards its flagship universities has drastically diminished, but to make sense of what lies behind it.

This is where unease about the argument makes itself felt. The underlying thought is pretty unexceptionable. Newfield regards the decline of the public university as part of an assault on the "middle class". For him, this is not what a British reader would automatically think of. Nor is use of the term a nod towards the extraordinary statistic that 82 per cent of Americans describe themselves as middle class. Newfield says: "The term ... is shorthand for 'college-educated'; it applies regardless of what social class the student comes from or returns to." But beyond that lies something engrained in the American radical psyche, the vision "of a full political, economic and cultural capability that would be in reach of more or less everyone through higher education and related public services".

Once the long postwar boom had taken hold in the United States, there was a sense that it was time for ordinary people to be liberated, not just from back-breaking toil but from constricted horizons. "Access" was not just about securing enough education to move out of the blue-collar trades; it was about being able to enjoy the cultural riches of the second half of the 20th century. The question that Newfield confronts is why the ambition was put into reverse after the mid-1970s.

Those of us who think that the better-off will always do their best to hang on to their advantages - and given half a chance, to increase them - are not surprised at the rich wanting to pay lower taxes and do less for the worse-off. What is surprising is that the victims of diminishing public provision themselves vote to starve higher education and healthcare of funds.

That is the conundrum that Newfield tries to resolve; his argument is intricate, but its essence consists of one negative claim and two positive ones. The negative claim is that in spite of innumerable economic commentators emphasising the threat to American prosperity from the East Asian economies, there is nothing intrinsic to globalisation that makes it impossible to spend public funds on high-quality public higher education. That is true, but it does not quite answer the question whether the two and a half decades-long expansion of public provision had not genuinely got out of hand by the early 1970s. It is a hard call, but anyone old enough will remember any number of books from that time announcing the terminal fiscal crisis of the modern state. Sceptics thought the problem was the attempt to fight the Vietnam War without raising the tax revenue to do it. At all events, the prosperity of the Californian higher education system certainly coincided with the share of profits in national income falling to the historically low levels from which it has bounced back spectacularly.

Nor does it quite confront the question of whether the Californian dream, which is really Newfield's subject, did not depend too heavily on the Cold War - the American Government happily threw money at anything and everything related to national defence, and California was the beneficiary. One answer to that question is that Californians paid - apparently happily - a much higher proportion of their incomes in education-related taxation then than now. Still, there is something in the thought that people are happier to pay higher taxes in the first flush of hitherto unknown prosperity, especially if those taxes are lower than they were during a recent war, and that they will become less happy as time goes on.

Newfield's positive explanations focus on the roles of race and the so-called culture wars. On this view, support among the white population for ever-widening access to high-quality public higher education was vulnerable to a backlash when it became clear that previously excluded ethnic minorities were to benefit.

For anyone bent on curbing the growth of expenditure on public higher education, the issue of affirmative action was a godsend. The fact that even in public higher education most affirmative action benefits the friends of politicians, the children of potential donors and semi-professional athletes has never made the impact it ought on the public consciousness.

But much of Newfield's book is devoted to culture wars. He is unsurprisingly disinclined to accept that the assorted literary theories that have aroused the ire of conservatives are as wicked as they maintain. His take on the unedifying history of the past 20-odd years is that just about all the complaints about identity politics, postmodernism and political correctness have at best been attempts to exclude new voices and new academic actors except on terms that do not threaten the incumbents' authority. At worst, of course, they are meant just to shut them out and shut them up. Not all readers will be persuaded. Certainly, the conservative hysteria of a dozen years ago was preposterous, but both sides shared an exaggerated belief in the power of literary theory to change the world for better or for worse.

But it is not every day that you get a meticulous analysis of higher education budgetary mechanisms within the same covers as reflections on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And the sheer generosity of spirit that underlies Newfield's rather depressing reflections is deeply attractive. The last word should, however, go to Governor Pat Brown, whose 1963 inaugural address contained this memorable line: "We are here to prove that a civilisation which can create a machine to fulfil a job can create a job to fulfil a man." That is the ambition we have betrayed.


Christopher Newfield has a great idea for saving the planet. "Education will save us," he says, "if we fund it and give it room."

Newfield studied biology and physics until discovering the humanities while at Reed College. He describes this experience as an awakening. "Suddenly it seemed possible to make sense of people and of what they do." After a PhD at Cornell, he went on to teach at the same campus, the University of California, Santa Barbara, that his mother had graduated from.

Co-founder of UCSB's Centre for Nanotechnology in Society, a director of two UC study centres in France and involved in UC planning and budgeting, he is short of spare time. However, he finds moments to pursue his hobbies of mountain walking and photography.

Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class

By Christopher Newfield

Harvard University Press

408pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780674028173

Published 30 May 2008

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