One of the most fruitful ideas to emerge from twentieth-century social theory is Max Weber’s notion of the “iron cage” of purposive rationality. Weber argued that once some principle of organization—market competition, say, or ideological orthodoxy—has achieved dominance in the spheres of production and governance, the rest of a society’s institutions find themselves gradually but inexorably adopting the same principle. In an ideology-dominant society, everything fluid turns to stone; in a market-dominant society, everything solid melts into air.
Not everything, of course. The iron cage is, like most other useful theoretical notions, an ideal type. All societies retain protected (or neglected) spaces where not-yet-rationalized traditions and communities flourish. Still, although the mills of rationalization turn slowly, they grind exceedingly fine. In time, Weber believed, every practice or institution in a modern society, regardless of its original purpose, experiences an irresistible pressure to adapt to the society’s fundamental organizing principle.
That’s one way to understand the story told by Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz’s important jeremiad on the deterioration of higher education in the United States. Deresiewicz chronicles how in recent decades U.S. colleges and universities have reflected and reinforced the ascendance of neoliberalism, which has served as the organizing principle of American society for the past 30 years or so. Deresiewicz, who taught English at Yale for ten years before leaving academia in 2008, laments the way that U.S. universities have replaced the traditional quest for liberal enlightenment with the goals and demands of late capitalism: consumer sovereignty, labor-market flexibility, debt financing, “scientific” management and marketing, and technologically driven increases in productivity. Universities have gone from nourishing their students’ spirits to facilitating their careers—especially careers in finance and consulting.
College, in Deresiewicz’s view, is supposed to be the place where one discovers an allegiance to something larger than oneself: service to a community or a cause, the practice of art or science or scholarship. The problem is not merely pedagogic but political: unless
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