Is university a racket? (And if so, then so what?)

The philosophy cafe is a discourse among consenting adults. It happens every second Friday, from 2:30-4pm, at the Pit Lounge on the campus of CBU. (See the schedule of upcoming events here.) Somebody gives a short introduction to the chosen topic, and an open conversation follows. Here are my introductory remarks from Friday’s Philosophy Cafe:

First, let’s do the analytic thing on the language we’ll be using: what do we mean when we say ‘university’? There is the building; there is the education one receives inside of it; there is the administration; and there is the institution: the capital-U University that may or may not refer to all those things.

‘Racket’ commonly refers to organized crime. A mobster comes by your deli and demands ‘protection money’, ostensibly to protect you and your business from crime. The payment is in reality just protection from violence the mobsters themselves will inflict on you and your business if you don’t pay. Broadly speaking it’s when an organization sells a solution to a problem that the organization itself creates. We think it exists for one reason (in the extortion case, the protection of the vulnerable) when it in fact exists for another (i.e., enriching the mob).

We’ll want to ask whether in some ways university provides a solution to a problem that it in fact creates, or at least exacerbates.

We’re told we need a university degree to get a job, but the exchange rate on those degrees is rapidly falling. We could talk about the Occupy movement: many students list student loan debt among their top grievances, and the Globe & Mail’s Report on Business said last week that in 2010, student loan debt in the US surpassed credit cards as the biggest source of personal debt.

Have universities simply become locked into the logic of infinite growth that defines capitalism: must universities continuously attract investment in order to grow, but then be required to manufacture demand? In other words, do universities meet some real and escalating need, or have universities created (or at least helped create) an education bubble?

Major General Smedley Butler, US Marine Corps, famously said:

“WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

Minus the part about loss of life, and some of the incidentals, might we say the same about university. It too is old, vicious, international, profitable to a few at the expense of the many. (If we buy the Occupy argument: we could probably spend the next hour and a half comparing student loan burdens and what it means for one’s ability to buy a house, start a business, create a savings.) And lastly, we think it exists for one reason (be that purposeful training, meaningful and horizon-broadening education, personal betterment) when it in fact exists for another reason.

That reason is not simply to extort money from curious and unsuspecting young people, though that might be part of it. It’s bigger than that: the university is one among many of the techniques and technologies through which capitalism reproduces itself. The university is an active, knowing, principal agent in the process of the commodification of knowledge, the commodification of education, and ultimately the commodification of students – and teachers – themselves.

Neil Postman argues that we live in a system wherein technology of every kind is granted supremacy and sovereignty over all other forms of human culture, social institutions, national life or civic life, etc. This system, which governs our lives, Postman calls Technopoly. The university contains many of what Postman calls Technopoly’s “invisible technologies”:

“[University is] a mechanism for information control. What its standards are can usually be found in a curriculum or, with even more clarity, in a course catalogue. A college catalogue lists courses, subjects, and fields of study that, taken together, amount to a certified statement of what a serious student ought to think about. More to the point, in what is omitted from a catalogue, we may learn what a serious student ought not to think about. A college catalogue, in other words, is a formal description of an information management program; it defines and categorizes knowledge, and in so doing systematically excludes, demeans, labels as trivial — in a word, disregards certain kinds of information. … By what it includes/excludes it reflects a theory of the purpose and meaning of education.”

And then, once inside the classroom, the experience of the individual is highly circumscribed by a second mechanism for control: grading — the assigning of often arbitrary numerical value to the learning outcomes of unique individual students. It has been argued that putting what is at least occasionally an arbitrary numerical value on learning actually devalues that learning; it has been argued that grading creates unnecessary and unproductive competition among students; so and so forth; but whatever the case, grading too has a disciplining effect, by delimiting what it means to be a successful student. And ultimately and eventually it objectifies the student absolutely: you are rendered and reduced to a series of letters and numbers:

Student ID 20061237
POLISCI 320 79%
PHIL 404 96%
MBA 5107 88%

And so on and so forth. Oh and please and thankyou, that will be $6200 plus HST. (Those weren’t necessarily my actual grades, by the way.)

The end result — the product — of this process of commodification is “the graduate”. This accredited human product is now objectively competent, authoritative, and credible. And to complete the commodification process, this accredited human product is then traded in the free market, exchanging one set of letters (BA, MA, PhD) for another set (VP, CA, CEO). Same with the numbers: one student trades the 79% for $24,000 a year while another trades the 96% for $240,000. (Again, not my grades, not my salary.)

Universities govern the flow of information, as Postman says, and students are ultimately reduced to information, and are themselves governed or disciplined by those same techno-bureaucratic techniques and forces. Students are transformed from more or less autonomous agents into, first, consumers of education as a commodity, and then, transformed into products of the education system or commodities themselves; ultimately, nodes in the circuitry of capitalism, through which the capitalist system reproduces itself.

Now, whether or not this was a bit of hyperbole, I’m going to now contradict myself a little here. I said that with a racket, we think it exists for one reason when it in fact exists for another. But the comedy of this particular philosophy cafe is that everyone seems to believe that university is in many ways a racket. I ask “Is university a racket?” and people say, “Yes. Next question.” We know the other reason (the commodification of education and the production of the compliant, maleable, disciplined, student-worker), and yet we continue to believe that university can also be the first thing (the personal betterment thing, and all that).

So what does that mean? It means that, even though it isn’t professors who are getting rich off the racket, you’re not off the hook. You are co-producers of education as a commodity, and therefore co-conspirators.

Nor are students off the hook. We too know the other reason, and are in fact co-producers of our own objectification and commodification.

(It is especially true of new instructors, particularly in big university cities, where universities are increasingly turning to untenured, underpaid, job-insecure recent graduates because it’s cheaper to source from this labour pool than it is to give someone tenure, benefits, job security, etc. These new teachers are recent consumers of the commodity of eduction, recent products of the education-commodification process, and now find themselves active participants in the continuing commodification of education and of students themselves.)

So this is what I think, and what I hope you’ll agree, is the more interesting part of the question: Is university a racket? Yes. But then if so, then so what?

What can we do as individuals, or collectively, that might reflect an alternative theory of the purpose and meaning of education?

What’s unlikely is that any of us will rise up, drop out, throw a wrench in the machine, put our bodies upon the gears. Not for most of us here, myself included. I’m a former philosophy student and a current MBA student in CBU’s Community Economic Development program. For us, maybe the only thing to do is carry on but with some sense of irony: “I am a cog, but at least I know I’m a cog.”

And yet, this seems unsatisfying.

Is there something better? Some alternative posture we can take in relation to “higher” education? Some alternative space we can carve out of the middle, or even just on the periphery? Some small act of rebellion, however imperceptible on the larger scale, some… act that can’t be commodified?

Is university a racket? And if so, then so what?