Escape and the University

Position paper for panel on “Universidades”
Latin American Studies Association
New York, May 2016

“Escape and the University”

edupunk

“Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young,” declares the subtitle to Anya Kamenetz’s book, Generation Debt. A second, rather longer but more explanatory subtitle, explains why this is so: “Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers.” Who is to blame, then? Well, the “rich geezers,” of course, but more to Kamenetz’s point is the palpable sense of betrayal that she feels towards the university system. For it is the rising cost of tuition–“two or three times faster than inflation for three decades” and “four times more than median family income in the 1990s” (19)–that means that students have to take out loans. Upon graduation, burdened with an average of $24,000 in loan debt, not to mention thousands of dollars of less secure debt such as unpaid credit card balances (5), they discover that all the investment and sacrifice has apparently been in vain. The few jobs on offer are “bad jobs,” often in retail or services, with no long-term security and little in the way of benefits of any kind. Then, as Kamenetz puts it in staccato style: “Layoffs. Underemployment. Flat incomes. No health insurance, no retirement plan, no paid vacation. Unaffordable housing. Moving back in with Mom. Turning thirty with negative savings and no assets.” (xi). Young people, if Kamenetz is to be believed, feel locked into a track leading to inevitable failure and disillusion. Yet these are not slackers, but well-intentioned, hard-working young men and women who aspire simply to the modern benchmark that they should do at least as well as, if not better than, their parents. Moreover, they bear no particular animus towards those who do succeed or have succeeded in the past: they merely want their own chance at prosperity. Hence it is higher education that emerges as the villain of the piece: it is increasingly seen as mandatory (“over 90% of high school graduates of all backgrounds say [. . .] that they hope to go on to college” [5]), but provides ever-fewer rewards. With rising tuition and declining financial aid, students drop out or finally emerge saddled with an impossible debt burden and deep resentment for the university’s broken promises.

Now, Kamenetz’s is far from the first generation of young people who feel let down by their elders and cheated by their institutions. Where it differs is in its response to this perennial problem of contemporary youth. Rather than (say) turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, or rather than starting a punk band (the Sex Pistols, after all, were keen to tell us there was “No Future” back in 1977), the advice offered in Kamenetz’s subsequent book, DIY U, is to continue to pursue an education, but at the institution’s margins. As much self-help as critique, DIY U follows its analysis of the lamentable state of the university sector with a final chapter that is a “Resource Guide for a Do-It-Yourself Education.” The key, it turns out, is to come up with a “personal learning plan” (137) and then to scour the Internet to make that plan a reality. So Kamenetz directs her readers to a multitude of sites from the Internet Archive to YouTubeEDU, TED Talks to Peer2Peer University. If you want more structure to your DIY education, she even suggests an online degree from somewhere like Western Governor’s University or Excelsior College. Moreover, true to her philosophy that an education can and should be provided online, Kamenetz has created her own website, “The Edupunks’ Guide” (http://www.edupunksguide.org; right now apparently offline, but also available as a free download, “copyright Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”), which provides links to everything from “personality tests and quizzes” to a list of “college credit services” that allow you to complete an otherwise abandoned formal degree program. Both in the book and on the website, Kamenetz’s tone is enthusiastic and upbeat: her aim is to transform disillusion into enthusiasm for alternative means to fulfill for yourself precisely the promises that she feels the university system has broken. Hence, her website tells us, “It’s never been a more exciting time to be a learner” as the Internet offers “new methods of content delivery, new platforms for socialization, and new forms of accreditation.” Or as she puts it in her book: “Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, vocational, experiential, and self-directed learning” (x). At times it sounds as though she has swallowed all the management jargon of university administrators–but taken it against the grain, as a prompt to exit the institution.

Kamenetz’s concerns echo, without fully overlapping with, those expressed by a series of tenured faculty who have their own reasons for disillusion with the university system. Thomas Docherty, for instance, argues in Universities at War that “money has systematically replaced thought as the key driver and raison d’être of the institution’s official existence” (ix). Ellen Schrecker, meanwhile, in The Lost Soul of Higher Education (subtitle: “Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University”), traces the history by which (she argues) universities have been “evolving into ever more bureaucratized organizations with an increasingly market-oriented set of priorities that reinforced the university’s long-standing hierarchical structures while weakening its traditional intellectual and educational commitments” (154). And it is for similar reasons that, in a recent essay, Alberto Moreiras argues for an exodus from the institution. “The space of the university,” he tells us, “is today politically unproductive and is blocked or kidnapped in favour of an Empire of money alone.” Speaking from what he calls “the autumn of life,” and a sense of tiredness or indeed “terminal boredom,” Moreiras declares that he “want[s] now to think about other things. Ex universitate.”

All this is another way of saying that the university is posthegemonic: it no longer has the same grip on the imagination of student or teacher alike. Its economic role comes to trump any ideological function that it may once have had. And yet precisely for this reason it looms larger than ever: more and more institutions are designated universities; increasing numbers of students enroll in them; far from being the remote “ivory towers” or cloistered communities of yore, they take up more and more space in our social, economic, and political landscape. The university becomes, perhaps to Kamenetz and Moreiras’s dismay, ever more inescapable. The mistake, however, would be to imagine that it was ever other than posthegemonic. As Ivan Illich put it in his critique at what was surely the height of the university’s prestige (after several waves of post-war expansion, yet while the institution’s relative autonomy was apparently unimpeachable), the school system as a whole has always been less about any hegemonic project and more about the inculcation of particular habits, the fostering of a limited range of affects, and the construction of a determinate mass subjectivity governed by its relationship to transcendental hierarchy. “Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction,” he claims, “they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. ‘Instruction’ smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope” (Deschooling Society 39). The only difference, perhaps, between then and now concerns the ubiquity of the university, the near-compulsory extension of schooling a further three or four years, and the full acceptance even by critics such as Kamenetz of the injunction to training and instruction (self-improvement, self-advancement) even in our so-called leisure time and at our own expense.

The question, it seems to me, is this: not whether we can escape the university, but what escapes its current configuration, and the extent to which we can further facilitate and encourage such escapes either within or without the classroom. In the first instance, that means working with, rather than against, students’ own sensation of frustration and dissatisfaction, their own feeling that they have been short-changed that parallels (even if it does not repeat) our own. Perhaps here we’ll find the inkling of a desire to constitute something new, something beyond the usual complaints, something that would go further than the rather limited aims outlined by Kamenetz. Perhaps here there’s the hint of some kind of constituent power. For ultimately, students have been cheated of their chance to be students, rather than merely consumers, cogs in the machine, or fodder for the employment markets. As Docherty observes, the commercialization of knowledge “attacks the student as student, replacing her with the student-as-consumer who is indebted financially but not ethically” (59). For all the money they put into the system, students have been denied the right to think, to be treated as people who can think for themselves, inside or outside the institution. But as they register their discomfort and unease, they also start to exercise their power. They are bored, too, even by all the university’s attempts to appease and (merely) entertain them. It’s time for them (and us) to create something new.

works cited

  • Docherty, Thomas. Universities at War. London: Sage, 2015.
  • Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1996.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers–And How to Fight Back. New York: Riverhead, 2006.
  • —–. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010.
  • Moreiras, Alberto. “Maquinación ex universitate.” https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/ponencia-para-coloquio-la-universidad-posible-santiago-de-chile-18-21-abril-2016-por-alberto-moreiras/
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: The New Press, 2010.

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