I was in New York last weekend and joined an Occupy Wall Street general assembly at Washington Square Park. Many students and ex-students complained about their massive debts of tens of thousands of dollars, told moving stories of how the debts have dominated and ruined their lives, and explained how legally it is more difficult to reduce the hardship of student loans than any other kind of loan.
I realized that I am part of the problem. To be sure, my professorial income qualifies me as one of the 99% (although my job is more secure than most). And my annual pay raise does not even keep up with the cost of living, much less with massive annual tuition inflation. But students are going into debt to support my job.
None of the students complained about the education they received per se. They were certainly not demanding that their education be more practical and job-oriented. In fact, many of the most vocal students had majored in things like art, ethnic studies or media studies that don’t create strong expectations of employment even in the best of times. Instead, they were upset about having to go into massive debt to finance their educations but with no jobs at the end; about how the government would bail out bankers but not them; about having followed the expected life trajectory only to be betrayed.
So what are students getting from me in exchange for their debt? Like most historians, I agree that university education should not necessarily be in practical topics and skills that serve corporate needs. Universities offer a chance to learn things that are very difficult to learn elsewhere (although we must never forget that many more things can be learned outside of the university than inside.) But this evades the issue. Expensive university educations have become a necessary life stage for most people. It is about more than just the chance to learn something neat.
My colleagues also like to emphasize that they are teaching critical skills, creating an informed citizenry, training students in the clear analysis and expression of ideas, blah blah and so on. I am not convinced: university lectures and essays are not necessarily the best way to transmit such skills; PhD holders are not necessarily the best people to teach them; and the highly intellectualized versions of these skills that are taught at universities often suppress the emotional-self knowledge, flexibility and social talents necessary to implement these skills wisely. Among people I know, these talents and the skills to use them have no clear correlation with how many years of education they have.
We do produce diplomas. These are a crucial part of our society. They are the credentials that define status and create opportunity in a world without bloodlines, titles, caste or divine recognition. Everybody from fingernail technicians to Wall Street oligarchs needs them. And for better paid jobs, spending more money on a Master’s Degree is increasingly required. These diplomas don’t prove that we have learned anything useful or that we will be good at their jobs. But they do show that we are willing to submit to the demands of professionalization, and to invest enormous time and resources to follow the expected trajectory and to present ourselves as somebody who has learned and accepted the norms of society.
It is possible that people with diplomas have learned some practical and critical skills that they would not or could not have learned otherwise. But much more importantly, those of us who police the paths to diplomas teach kids to sit still for long periods, to absorb what we tell them regardless of how boring it is, to reflect our ideas back to us in the forms that we demand, and to discipline their imaginations into narrower and more utilitarian forms. These skills—much more than any critical skills—are the ones that will draw on most as they find places in institutions, climb career ladders, and learn how to consume expensive things.
Nobody at Washington Square seemed to be protesting the educational process per se. How could they? Our lives have been shaped by the predictable progress through educational institutions at least since we were five years old. Educational milestones have marked the main change-of-life and coming-of-age rituals in our lives. Educational institutions have shaped our communal and individual identities (Go Beavers!). Our experiences in these institutions and the diplomas we carry are important social and cultural capital. The students were upset about not getting the rewards they deserved for having invested so much in the process (although some of the more hard-core anarchist and communitarian protestors at Wall Street do seem to be searching for alternatives to this process). Beneath all the protest criticism is a sense of betrayal.
(Side note: I can still remember when, before 2008, I used to talk about the massive trickery and unsustainability of global financial mechanisms and of how the developed nations have become skilled in sucking wealth from the rest of the world without really producing anything except new services that will only suck more. Most students looked at me blankly, a few rolled their eyes, and some always tried to insist that new technology had changed everything. Some had the condescending air of people who knew that they would soon be earning much more than I did by joining technology and financial industries that would change the world far more than I would with my outmoded ideas.)
In other words, we are all part of the problem (i.e., all of us who advance, or hope to advance, through the Western educational systems). We are all struggling to be at the center global capitalism that specializes in sucking up profit from around the world, exporting dirty work while creating leisure and luxury for ourselves, and then making everybody believe it is all for the sake of truth and progress. The bloated university—with its ever-expanding services, administrators, practical and impractical education, and relentless professionalization—is an indispensable part of this. Not only does it typify the way that educated service providers have perfected the talents of sucking up the wealth of the world. It also controls entry into this elite world and trains young people to participate. More than anything, universities (and especially we professors) have perfected that capitalist trick of encouraging you to believe that we are being individualistic, pushing the envelope, thinking critically, caring about the oppressed or somehow standing outside of the system; even as we are training you precisely how to join that system. It is a powerful system, and nobody wants to be left out or on the losing end.
As Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party keep reminding us, it is not a system without glitches. It would feel good to wreak some vengeance on the bankers, or at least get them to reform a bit. It may even help to improve the general welfare for a while (at least for developed countries—but likely somehow at the expense of undeveloped countries). But the paradoxes at the heart of the human condition will remain.