Occupied Higher Ed

Higher education has within it two contradictory threads. On the one hand there is the tradition which views education in general (and higher education in particular) as the place where transformation can occur, where intellectual and psychological liberation can occur, where people have a chance to raise their consciousnesses, as we used to call sharpening our perceptions and critiques of the world. Sometimes these personal changes can happen through engagement with faculty, as Neil Postman hoped for in his classic book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, but they also take place very importantly through students’ own intentions to pause, to ponder, to reflect, and to wrestle with reality in community with their fellows.

Another current within higher education, however, sees the realm not as a way to create and recreate ourselves and our communities by the cultivation of critical analysis and the development of individual potential and the greater common good. Instead, in this view higher education has become a source of credentials. Businesses and employers want employees who have paid for their own training, and who arrive with the proof of that in hand, who show up not only pre-prepared for employment, but also even pre-sorted by their degrees and grades. And students surely need jobs, and these days that inevitably means flashing those diplomas.

Through the explosion of this credential-generating and industry-serving vision of college, the possibilities for higher education to be about the growth of intellectual horizons, the questioning of principles, the examination of the organization of society, is getting squeezed. Grants flow to biotechnology, endowments come earmarked for business schools. Not so many students feel they can afford to be a philosophy major when they suspect that they will need a degree in computers or an MBA to make a decent living.

Even more inimical to the loftier purposes of higher education than the displacement of the funding, time and inclination to ruminate, however, is the myth of meritocracy that the pursuit of credentials promotes. If you want to get ahead, the story goes, go to school! If you get a degree, the story goes, you can get a job with decent pay and decent benefits. If your child graduates from college, the story goes, they can live a better life than you did.

Don’t wonder why the essential jobs of our society, like picking up trash or taking care of kids or growing food, don’t provide decent pay and decent benefits. Don’t wonder why bathing and feeding sick people or fixing cars aren’t lives with dignity that parents are proud to pass on to their children. No, just go to school and you and yours can climb the social ladder, to that higher level where a decent life now resides.

Now, however, in the days of Occupy!, students are beginning to feel cheated. Again. Over the decades, many student movements have been rooted in frustrated aspirations. Over and over in the 20th century, young people across the world have pursued university degrees only to find that there is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. They have been left driving cabs or waiting tables instead. Revolutions have been fed by betrayed students, from China to Egypt to Iran, as their senses of betrayal widened into ever-larger critiques of those social orders which deceived them. Suicides have resulted too, such as the self-immolations of students just two months ago in Morocco. Here in the U.S., the disillusioned Occupy Student Debt movement challenges Americans to refuse to pay their school loans back, and to push for more government funding for education.

While in much of the rest of the developed world the private rather than public nature of much of American higher education is a cause for scandal, our scenario goes even further into shameful territory. Even what pass for public universities in this country have gone, over the course of the last decades, from being close to free to costing over half the yearly income of the poorest fifth of Americans. Even what pass for public universities in this country devote most of their teaching and research to training a workforce for the needs of the private sector, not to cultivating an informed citizenry. Even what pass for public universities in this country employ armies of adjunct professors who get paid so little that they can qualify for food stamps.

We have now an arms race for an ever-receding entry level of education. What a high school diploma sufficed for a generation ago now requires a bachelor’s. A master’s is the new bachelor’s. And in this growth market for degrees, even these marginally public universities are being crowded by a for-profit educational complex which dangles supposedly career-generating diplomas in front of sometimes desperate would-be students, coaxing and conning them into signing on to loans often underwritten by taxpayers, echoing the larger American push towards the privatization of the public, from prisons to water supplies to parks.

In this scenario, indeed the understanding of a college education as a basic human right rather than a commodity has much to recommend it.

But so far, much of current student frustration pivots on the idea that access to education is access to social mobility. Greater access to college is advocated on the moral foundation that everyone deserves a chance to rise in the world, not that everyone deserves the right to work and the right to a living wage. Hence, underlying much of the current student debt movement is an accepted principle that the path forward for overworked, underpaid, and disrespected Americans lies in the individual pursuit of educational credentials. The complaints lie largely in the difficulties of the pursuit of those credentials, and the bait and switch nature of the rewards for them. The right-wing mantra of America as the land of opportunities not guarantees passes without note, while the International Labor Organization’s almost 15 year old campaign for the human right to decent work has not taken off in this country. Rather, we scramble, via ‘education’, to each claw our own personal way out of the indecent work so readily available to us.

Lost in the personal pain of debt stories told on Tumblr, multiplied millions of times over, is the observation made by so many economists and social critics, that since a lack of education isn’t the cause of exploitation, nor will education be the solution to it. Or as John Holt said, “poverty is not a reading problem and better reading won’t solve it.” Granting diplomas will never challenge structural inequality and a class system, and the promotion of education as a solution to inequality absolves the policies which created those inequalities. Lost too, is the corollary observation that higher education serves as a gatekeeper for and marker of entry to the middle class, not as a creator of the middle class. Classes are created by politics and economics, not schools.

Meanwhile, we come to believe that those who stay on the bottom of the social pile must have failed to go out and get an education, and that those who went to ‘good schools’ deserve elite jobs and all that goes with them. Educational stratification legitimates social stratification, or as John Marsh puts it in his perceptive book Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, “appeals to education have displaced the debate about social class and economic power that Americans need to have.” America has gotten away with not providing decent work by pretending to provide opportunity in the form of education.

Now comes Occupy. Higher education faces a fork in the road. Will colleges and universities, hoping for a piece of the expanding traffic in students and searching for an easy path to greater public subsidies and corporate handouts, play along with the myth that they are the solution to inequality? That what we really need is to improve people, not improve jobs? Or will they become part of the movements for living wages and for decent work for all people, degreed or no? Will they take the ground that was not so radical only a generation or two ago, the ground that says that training compliant, hoop-jumping employees for business isn’t why we exist? That being a forum for the self-creation and co-creation of an aware, active, critical public is the true purpose of higher education?

Talking with a friend about the responsibilities of higher education in the era of Occupy, she asked me what it would actually look like for colleges to not merely reject the corporatization of academia, but to actually become part of these struggles for a more just world. Are colleges responsible only to promote critical thinking, she wondered? Is that constricted sense of academic mission really different at all from the old commitment to the liberal arts which, admirable though it may be on some levels, has failed so often to become part of larger movements against inequality? How might the engagement of colleges with the moral issue of our day actually come to pass?

It won’t happen naturally, if history is any example. A couple of decades ago, in perhaps the last widespread example of a higher moral ground for academia, during the era of divestment in apartheid, the righteous stand did not come easily. Agitation, pressure, and conflict played out over years before universities took their money out of culpable investments.

In the spirit of Occupy, I here propose no answers, but suggest instead that my friend’s questions are just the ones for Occupiers to take up. How should educational institutions be structured? What are students and staff and faculty’s responsibilities towards each other and to the public, to politics, to the economy and society? What, at long last, is the role of the intellectual in society? At this moment, finally, it isn’t just intellectuals who are asking this question, but the Occupy movement as well. What will our answers be? That is up to us.

Eva Swidler is an environmental historian and faculty advisor in the interdisciplinary bachelor of arts program at Goddard College.  

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