Christopher Newfield: The Crises of the Public University and the Mass Middle Class

The language used by Professor Christopher Newfield in his discussions on the state of higher education from the last few decades of the 20th century into the 21st is charged with violent connotations, to say the least. “Assault,” “war,” “killed,” and “cut” are terms continuously used in his analyses and studies, emphasizing the devastating dismantling—or, in his words, “unmaking”—of public universities through politically conservative efforts and initiatives in the last forty or so years. It’s a violent rhetoric, but it speaks to the very real dedication Newfield has toward the longstanding importance and vital role of the university to the nation and world at large. These “assaults” have become a systematic effort to disassemble, disregard, and devalue the university’s role of access, quality, and commitment to knowledge and education beyond economic determinism and commercial viability.

Newfield is a Professor of English and American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He earned his doctorate in American Literature at Cornell University in 1988. His first two books, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996) and Mapping Multiculturalism (as editor with Avery F. Gordon, University of Minnesota Press, 1996), deal primarily with American literature and literary theory, but engage with their subjects—the former on reevaluating Emerson’s ideas on individualism through a political lens, and the latter on the nature of multicultural discourse and viewpoints through political and rhetorical writing—in ways that lay the groundwork for his later involvement in analyzing higher education in America, from the late 19th century to today.

In his book, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980 (Duke, 2003), Newfield emphasizes the historical relevance and importance that the university played in industrial development for nearly a hundred years. Its focus, according to Newfield, was “the set of cultural capabilities that the university instilled in the generations that it sent off into the world,” one of these capabilities being “professionalism,” which he describes as a “type of craft labor that enabled both relative independence and large-scale organization” (Newfield, 6). This professionalism of labor, according to Newfield, and the institutions from which its ideas and workers emerged, universities, might have allowed for a new mass middle-class made up of college-educated, blue- and white-collar workers, working across racial and class lines. This mass middle-class might have formed a “unified majority” that posed a potential threat to traditional elite structures and stations. The university was the place in which these diverse sectors and groups could merge, forming new discussions, ideas, and understandings of the people inside and outside of the institutions and across the globe.

For Newfield, it was this potential for a new unified majority that led to the systematic and conservative efforts to “unmake” the public university as it stands through the “budgetary” and “cultural wars” emerging in the late 1970s and taking shape by the early 1980s. As he states in the subtitle to his most recent book, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008), these efforts became long-standing assaults on the values and importance of the public university to the country, to the states, and to its citizens as these institutions began to suffer under the weight of defunding, privatization, dismantling, and misunderstanding of its intents.

Early in Unmaking, Newfield points to the entangled nature of society, industry, and the university as they face three particular “crises”: political, economic, and cultural. The political crisis centered around the new “multiracial mass democracy” emerging from the civil rights movements in the 1950s and 60s which threatened, through the idea of the “democratization of power,” white elites and politicians. This led to the great division along political party lines of “red” and “blue” states, Republicans and Democrats and a conservative push back along racial lines (23-24). The economic crisis was the continuing decline of the US in domestic and foreign markets, with a drastic growth in inequality between the increased profits of the elite minority and the decline of the majority (which clearly carries into the rhetoric of the 99%/1% divide). The cultural crisis was the “split” between qualitative—the areas of cultural and human relations studies, including the humanities and arts—and quantitative—the areas of science and business—knowledge. With each of these factors in mind, Newfield elucidates the steady decline, through strategic efforts—“assaults”—by white, conservative, elite leaders and powers, of the public university and the promotions of its democratic ideals.

The “budgetary” and “cultural wars” that arose in the 1980s and continue into the present are “economic wars” bent on steadily dismantling core aspects of the university, including the liberal arts and humanities, and the areas of study that do not generate profitable or “useful” knowledge. Using rhetoric on how the public university bread anti-American sentiment through Leftist, Communist, and Socialist teachings, conservative politicians, including President Reagan, targeted universities that threatened to promote the new mass middle-class. This push led to budgetary cuts and defunding of the universities on state and federal levels, which continue to devalue the accessibility and quality of public universities. It has grown increasingly difficult to achieve or aim toward this mass middle-class as tuition costs continue to rise, cultural studies departments and courses face shortages and eliminations altogether, the hiring of more adjunct and low-earning positions over tenure-track positions create a more uncertain workforce, and privatization of universities promote corporate or business model approaches, valuing economic development over “human development” (the studies of cultural diversity along racial, class, and gender and sexuality lines which promote understanding and cross-cultural work).

Newfield concludes his book with five points on “cultural remedies” for improving the state of public universities in the 21st century: 1) reaffirmation of racial equality as “a value and as a goal”; 2) redefining the public university as “the place where maximum access is synthesized with the highest quality” of education; 3) reengaging the university with “forms of individual and collective development that cannot be captured in economic terms,” or guided by economic incentive (272); 4) “restoring and increasing public funding for the public university” on state and federal levels, as well as stemming the “growth of adjunct and low-wage teaching staffs” in pursuit of more tenure-track and financially secure positions (273); and 5) reestablishment of the “value of understanding societies beyond their status as commercial markets” (274). Each of these points listed have been important to me as well over the last few years in higher education, seeing firsthand the devaluation of the role of education as vital to cultural analysis, awareness, and knowledge outside of economic demarcations and incentives. The humanities are continuously threatened and undervalued. Their worth is now predicated on monetary worth rather than areas of study that illuminate the complexities and diversity of ourselves and our world. For me, Newfield put into words the various things that have begun to frustrate me about the perceptions and directives of the public university in the last few decades. Through efforts on all fronts—from educators, administrators, governmental officials, and state and national governances—it might be possible to reconfigure these five points, and many others, as ways in which public universities can regain their position as vital entities and places of knowledge and discovery.

Some of the critiques of Unmaking point to Newfield’s directed language and positioning of the conservative elites on one side against the multiracial mass middle-class which he envisions for the goal of the public university. Scott Gelber, in Academe magazine (95.4, July-August, 2009), states that Newfield “tends to present the American right-wing as an elitist monolith determined to thwart majority rule,” and “in juxtaposing a conservative elite and a multiracial middle class, he overlooks the ideological diversity of college-educated America” (Gelber, 48). While I agree that Newfield tends to align the Right with threatened titans of economics, political power, and manipulation, and at the same time painting this mass middle-class as a completely unified, diverse, and interactive force for the greater good without noting continued problems of class, race, and gender/sexuality differences within (political divides still operate well-within the structures of the public university), what I imagine his focus to be on is the potential of the public university to bring about this possible unified class. It’s a place for bringing ideologies, cultures, and people together and from that interaction and engagement—provided increased access and quality of education based on increased funding and care for cultural studies areas and focuses—generating more productive conversations, insights, and understandings on cultural differences. It’s a difficult goal to attain and may lie more under an idealistic umbrella than a practical one, but is it better or worse than what is in place now? Even if we cannot reach this ideal, can we not at least try to proceed into that direction? It’s a harmony that may never be sung or heard, but it is something to strive for, bridging the gap between the divides.

To learn more about Newfield and his current work, I recommend checking out his blog site, Remaking the University, and following him on Twitter @cnewf.

Scott Gelber, “But What if Anti-Intellectualism is Really Bipartisan?,” Academe, 95.4 (Jul.-Aug., 2009), pp. 48-50.
Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

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