Monday, October 27, 2008

Higher Education is the Coffin of the Self Made Man

It started with a conversation this morning with someone I knew in college... went into something else... and came out a bit of a statement against the status of "higher" education these days.

In a world of robotic shut ins, it would be quite possible for millions to convince themselves that the sky is really green, should a work of fiction, placed in the wrong aisle, be picked up by some prolific and oft-quoted scribe. Of course we are not robotic shut ins, but the right wing tendency in Academia can give you the impression that it wished we were. The more class conscious, threatened, and/or conservative directors of universities do their best to "seal" their campuses from the rest of society, and to impart to their students the idea that some kind of wall needs to be erected from the "bad" outside and the "good" inside. Poetry clubs babble on and at great length about "reality"- and for good reason- for most of their "higher" education they are genuinely quite confused as to what it is!

The entire structure of higher education in the United States is organized in a fundamentally aristocratic way, which sadly is quite fitting at a time when European countries are experiencing greater class mobility than we are. Uniforms may be gone from most colleges but the condescending and unwarranted sense of entitlement, of existing above and over the great unwashed, is strong as ever. In its own subtle way, this can perhaps best be symbolized by the recent decision of George Washington University, one of the nation's foremost alleged centers of political enlightenment and (not alleged) of connections, to name a new dorm "The Ivory Tower". There is something Orwellian, and of disbelief, in that, for it has been precisely through these years of George Bush, Paris Hilton, and Desperate Housewives, infotainment and endless war; the elevation of vice to a smirk, and finally, proclaimed in stone as some kind of flashy, yodeling, accomplishment, on the lips and over the heads of thousands of students every day.

Anyone who has ever tried to host a public event on a campus, and has gone through the maze of paperwork to register an "official" student organization to do it, knows quite intimately the contempt for "non-students" that infests the offices of (even the student government!) bureaucracy. Any student activist can tell you of the paranoia other students and administrators can induce in them should the full extent of their plottings (!) on campus with non-student friends and fellow activists (!) be known. The constant need to classify people and events as being either "student" or "non" is pathological and has no educational merit. Where I went to college a fee (which should really be called a tax) is still leveraged against student groups who dare to host a meeting on campus where greater than 50% of attendees are non-students. Heaven forbid "ordinary people", without paying, would like to watch a film, discuss current events, see a concert, or hear an interesting speaker's opinions on some pressing matter!

With modern technology, and card swipe access for university buildings, authoritarianism is sadly becoming more and more of a reality on many campuses. It was very distressing for me, as a student, to learn that a "non student" friend, who was himself a student at a different college just a few blocks away, was not allowed accompany me into a library, or a computer lab, to help me with a project.

Students kill themselves, sometimes literally, to be able to afford tuition- whether by working long hours that takes time away from studies, or by signing up with the military for college money. ROTC exercises at the crack of dawn leave students exhausted, and working students cannot afford to pay their rent and take unpaid internships that can help later with jobs. The "unpaid internship" is far more than an exercise in corporate bootlicking, and the exploitation of unpaid labor. Its value on a resume and in personal connections amounts essentially to a form of job discrimination against people who began their lives with less money.

The machinery of student loans is a financial perversion. Money is invented by bankers typing numbers into a computer. It is then "loaned" at interest to students. Several years later, the bank has profited off this "loan" of money that no one knows whether or not it ever had to begin with, while the student starts off on his career tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt. Where does all the money go? A lot of universities don't even use it for plenty that is needed (health care for teachers and staff?)- much of it is invested- not in new books or the minds of the young, but in pro-profit enterprises. The university, like America, becomes a business. That the lights still manage to come on when you flick a switch around here is really quite a wonder.

Almost as bad, and in an even more insidious way, is the beast known as the "partial scholarship". Partial scholarships are often conditional on the student maintaining a certain grade point average. However the scholarship itself, along with whatever the family can provide, does not cover all the costs. So the student gets a part time job. Their job deprives them of the time they need to study to keep their grades up, yet the job is necessary to stay a student. Caught in an impossible bind, the student cuts out most any extra-curricular activity that is not directly tied to academics. They suffer socially, and their political development is stunted, for how many of us learned just as much life and the world after class with friends, or at an event, as we did from our textbooks?

In the United States thousands of students go into debt to buy books they do not have time to read. Illegal drug use is the only way many (most?) have been able to defy sleep and finish their papers. For many as well selling drugs is a principle source of tuition money. More broadly an occasional speculation in pharmaceuticals, prescription and otherwise, can be a vital supplement to one's food budget. That respected university presidents and boards of directors can draw six figure salaries, live in university owned houses, drive university owned cars, and calmly preside over and maintain such a delinquent, broken system, is a greater indictment of the failings of official education than is anything I could write.

The comfortable defenders of this system may endeavor to hide their guilt beneath the coffin of the self-made man. More often than not, there seems to be a linear relation: Those who most loudly proclaim their pride in having "worked their way" through college were often helped quite satisfactorily through the process by Mom and Dad. Their job was part time and went more often than not to that weekend's beer money. Neither does their education appear to have been well versed in the classics: for in Greek mythology it was a SENTENCE for a CRIME to have to push a boulder endlessly up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. In the United States every student every day could live out the fate of a Sisyphus. What parent would willingly choose such an existence for their child? The real tragedy is that students will most likely never have the time to read the origional story in full.

The student and teacher rebellion will not be a mere passing incident of "campusy" youthful idealism on behalf of some far off suffering population. It will raise very fundamental ideological questions about our nation's priorities. Is education important? Does it matter? Should it be available to all who want it? Should it be designed in order to serve the needs of students or of profit hungry bankers and administrators?

-A former student who is a socialist and believes all education (and health care) should be free to everyone

I support:

People talking to each other about their common problems
Grassroots movements

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