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?

Imagining an Alternative World

Capitalism is in crisis: this is clear to anyone paying attention to world events. But rather than rehashing the same old critique, the fifth annual “Human Security Forum” will examine alternatives to business-as-usual economics.

A project of the Centre for International Studies at CBU, this participatory forum brings together people from around the world to explore ideas for a more democratic, egalitarian and sustainable future.

This year’s forum features speakers from the US, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Canada, including:

  • David Tracey from the Vancouver Community Agricultural Network, which seeks to create more community gardens in order to increase urban organic food production.
  • And Eric Leviten-Reid, an independent community development consultant who for the past ten years has been a member of the national staff team of Vibrant Communities, a pan-Canadian initiative exploring comprehensive, collaborative and community-driven approaches to poverty reduction. Eric is currently pursuing strategies for sustainable community development (economic, social and environmental) in Cape Breton.

The conference runs all day Saturday, at the new Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment at CBU; and kicks off on Friday with a keynote speech and one-act play, Howard Zinn’s “Marx in Soho,” which imagines Marx returning to earth to defend his ideas.

Registration is free. Full details, including agenda, speaker bios, and late registration (still about 8 spots left) online at:

Philosophy Cafe

Is a profound change in our attitudes towards animals morally required? What are the limits of tolerance in a pluralistic society? What makes human consciousness unique? Is university a racket?

These are some of the questions being asked at this year’s Philosophy Cafe — an informal gathering of faculty, students, staff, and open to the general public — held every second Friday from 2:30-4pm at the Pit Lounge at CBU.

This Friday, November 4th, yours truly asks the question: Is University a racket? (And if so, then so what?).

Each discussion begins with a short introduction to the chosen topic. The conversation that follows is often invigorating, occasionally infuriating, frequently edifying, and always friendly.

The Philosophy Cafe is held every second Friday, from 2:30-4pm, at the Pit Lounge at CBU; and is hosted by the Philosophy and Religious Studies department of CBU, who invite you to come, listen, learn, and join the conversation.

October 21: “Should we all be vegetarians?”

Dr. Richard Keshen asks: Is a profound change in our attitudes toward animals morally required?

November 4: “Is university a racket?”

An investigation into the price, cost, and value of higher education

November 18: “Do computers have minds?”

4th-year philosophy student Shitangshu Roy asks: What makes human consciousness unique?

December 2: “What are the limits of Tolerance?”

Dr. Scott Stewart asks: In a pluralistic society, must we tolerate what we consider to be intolerable?

CB Local Diet

Baddeck resident Alicia Lake has embarked on a month-long challenge to eat local. From September 1st to the 30th, Alicia’s diet will consist entirely of food grown or produced in Cape Breton (or manufactured using only local ingredients).

This means no oil for cooking, no chocolate, no salt, no grains, and hardest of all, no coffee! But it also means potatoes, onions and herbs from North River Organics in North Shore, garlic from Blue Marsh Farm in Nevada Valley, corn from Hanks Farm in Millville, lamb from GlenRyan Farms in Margaree, Honey Wine from Winter Winery in Scotch Lake…. and that was only day one.

Passionate about local food and how it pertains to community economic development in the region, Alicia has a firm belief that the choices we make when it comes to feeding ourselves and our families have wider social, environmental and economic implications.

“I believe that sustainable agriculture can be a foundational element for Community Economic Development, by providing health, food security, local jobs, social capital and sense of place for citizens. Purchasing local food is also a way of supporting the local economy that is available to all citizens and not only to those who can afford to invest,” she writes on her blog.

“However, since the disappearance of many producers it is no longer a simple task to purchase food that is produced only in Cape Breton. The purpose of this adventure is to demonstrate how many wonderful foods are produced here, and also to learn about the holes in our island food security.”

I set her up a with a blog, which she uses to post her daily menus, along with stories, photos, and occasional observations and discoveries along the way in her Cape Breton Local Food Adventure:

Alicia grew up in Iona and now lives in Baddeck with her husband and two children. She is founder and president of the Baddeck and Area Community Market, and is a Community Development Officer in the Political Science Department at CBU. She holds Bachelor degrees in both Community Studies and Political Science from Cape Breton University, and is currently pursuing an MBA in Community Economic Development at CBU.

Bras d’Or CEPI

The Bras d’Or CEPI (Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative) arose in 2003 in response to the First Nation Chiefs in Cape Breton requesting the development of an overall management plan for the Bras d’Or Lake and watershed lands, to addresses the key environmental issues of forestry, water, land use, invasive marine species, and declining fish stocks.

A fundamental part of CEPI’s process is the concept of ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’, the practice of approaching from Indigenous and Western Scientific perspectives without privileging one over the other.

Indigenous Science emphasizes reciprocity and relationship, reverence and ritual, responsibility and respect (and apparently alliteration). The Western Scientific Method is about making and testing hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, and constructing explanatory and predictive models and theories.

A defining difference between the two world views is that Aboriginal peoples believe their ancestors were right on most things (hence an emphasis on tradition), whereas Westerners believe their ancestors were either mostly wrong or their ideas can always be improved upon (hence an emphasis on testing and falsifiability). But the point of ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ seems to be that practitioners themselves benefit by weaving the two perspectives together (a distinctly Indigenous concept) rather than that one perspective is improved by incorporating elements from the other (which would constitute a Eurocentric privileging of “progress” over tradition).

While there are obvious differences in the two belief systems — such as whether land and knowledge is held in trust for future generations or can be owned and exploited for personal gain — there are equally obvious points of consensus. Both knowledge systems start with observations of the natural world (pattern recognition) and are expressed in the stories we tell about our interactions with and within that world. (More on ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’, including a presentation by Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni Mi’kmaq First Nation and Dr. Cheryl Bartlett of CBU)

Centre for International Studies

When I designed, I put accessibility at the top of the list of priorities. Because of the Centre’s mandate to promote internationalization and global awareness at CBU and in the community, the website is likely to be viewed by people all over the world. This means varying levels of computer hardware, browser software, and internet accessibility. The goal was to build a website that is mostly just text (so it loads faster), but that is still highly functional and nice to look at.

The Centre’s flagship event is the Annual Social Justice Forum (formerly Human Security Forum):

A participatory forum challenging our conventional concepts of crime and punishment in the 21st century. With a view to promoting social justice and cultural integrity around the world, the forum will explore international human rights, structural violence, and race, class and gender dimensions of crime and punishment.

In addition to the annual forum, the Centre encourages the internationalization of the curriculum; coordinates educational activities on the themes of development, the environment, human rights, social justice, and peace, and more. (I’m an advisory board member.)

Disaster Songs!

Many web designers have started down the path toward “website that looks like an old newspaper”. But, finding it too cheesy, too tricky, or simply a poor match of form and function, have had to turn back. With, making a website that looked like an old newspaper made perfect sense. (And based on user feedback, others agree. Phew!)

Three academic researchers, including Dr. Heather Sparling from CBU, have mined the Canadian disaster song tradition and come up with almost 300 pieces. They’ve begun publishing their results, starting with songs about Mining Disasters, with Ocean Disasters, Airline Disasters, Lumbering Disasters, and Railway Disasters to follow.

The last underground mines in Eastern Canada closed in the 1990s, bringing an end to a way of life that had been a part of the region for over two centuries. Nova Scotia’s coal deposits in particular were among the deepest underground in the world, some extending far under the ocean, making them among the most dangerous to mine. Flooding, asphyxiation, spontaneous combustion, falling rocks, and “bumps” (underground earthquake-like events that resulted from the removal of coal and the lack of replacement support) killed 2500 miners over the years, maiming and seriously injuring so many more. This in addition to those who died from chronic illness including lung infection.

While major disasters were transformational and dramatic, the commonplace occurrence of injury or death in the normal conduct of mining was equally palpable for miners and their families…

The communities that grew around the mines were unlike most communities. The manner of exploiting coal required lots of community support in order to reproduce the daily labour of the thousands of men and boys underground. The dangers associated with the industry produced a close knit and interdependent community.

But dealing with death and injury on a regular basis also produced a wide variety of coping mechanisms; something necessary if men were to keep going into the pits in spite of accidents. Songs were a part of a coping-process, just as were various other forms of commemoration and memorialization of workers who lost their lives. Annual commemorative occasions, museums, commemorative plaques, statues to fallen miners, etc. abound throughout the region as a way of signifying the breadth and depth of the sacrifices made.

CBU Press

For 35 years, CBU Press has served as a link between Cape Breton University and its broader communities, publishing (mainly) works related to Community Economic Development, Culture and History – “literature of significance to Cape Breton Island and that which enhances knowledge about the Island, its history and cultural preservation.”

With this redesigned website, we hope to continue to serve this function, cultivating a reading community both online and off. Look for more interactivity and even an e-book or two in the future.

Continuing the tradition of making connections within and between communities, CBU Press recently published The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond, by CBU professors, academics and social justice activists (and good friends of mine) Terry Gibbs and Garry Leech.

The book looks at how two coal-mining communities are deeply effected by globalization as companies in the global North (Canada, the US and Europe), taking advantage of free-trade deals and neoliberal policies in general, exploit the natural resources and cheap labour of the global South (Latin America, Africa, Asia). The result is “militant labour struggles, repression, economic insecurity, population displacement, social inequality and environmental devastation” – in both hemispheres.

Published in 2009 but written prior, the book exposed the failure of transnational capitalism – before the global financial crisis made it plain for everyone to see.

CBU Press has also published local calls, a book of poetry by another good friend of mine, Sean Howard of Main-à-Dieu. Click here to read my introductory remarks from the book launch.

Beaton Institute Music

Cape Breton’s four distinct musical traditions – Acadian, Mi’kmaq, Gaelic and songs of the coal mining tradition – are featured in a new website launched yesterday by the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University.

MUSIC: Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity features over 100 songs, more than 20 videos, and more than 175 photos from the Beaton’s archives. The digitization of the materials ensures their preservation while increasing accessibility to the public. The Internet is made for projects like this.

Each page includes info about the song, a short bio of the artist and/or performer, lyrics, translations, transcripts in the case of videos, and educators’ resource guides that teachers can download and use in their classroom.

For various reasons, they couldn’t use a content management system, so the site is pure old-fashioned HTML, hand-coded, from scratch, by me.

It was a pleasure to work with the project’s team which included the Beaton’s staff. The songs were selected and re-mastered by Allister MacGillivray. Music consultants were John Alick MacPherson; Janice Tulk; Dan Doucet; and Jack O’Donnell of the Men of the Deeps. Educational consultant was Eric Favaro. Christie MacNeil did pretty much everything else.

Global warming: One Hot Topic

Published in the Cape Breton Post and

We live in interesting times. There’s no denying it.

In light of the unprecedented scope and complexity of the problems the world faces, Thomas Homer-Dixon has said that ‘ecology’ – the study of natural systems – will be the dominant field of study in the 21st century. The term ‘system’ refers not only to the environment, but to things like economies and populations; and – most importantly – to the interconnectedness between and among systems, as in a town or city.

If, instead, we treat problems in isolation from one another, we may find that we are treating multiple and recurring symptoms while the cause persists.No other issue epitomizes this need for a holistic approach to problem-solving than climate change.

The build-up in the atmosphere of heat-trapping gasses like carbon dioxide and methane is causing global temperatures to rise. This in turn is destabilizing the earth’s climate systems as they adapt, trying to equilibrate. And while global warming is largely the result of the profligate burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) and unchecked economic growth in the industrialized West, the effects of climate change will be felt first and worst in the poorest communities in the Global South — effects ranging from poor air quality and rising sea levels to desertification and ocean acidification. In already stressed parts of the world, the more extreme of these effects may lead to resource wars, not just over oil but food and water.

Slowing, adapting to, and mitigating the worst effects of climate change at home and abroad will require seeing the complex interconnections between ecosystems, economies and human populations; between energy, development and social justice. In short, climate change is not only a scientific and technological issue, but a political, economic and moral one, too.

However, despite being perhaps the defining ecological crisis of our time, climate change only seems to surface in the mainstream media when yet another controversy breaks.

In November of 2009, just weeks prior to the international Climate Conference in Copenhagen, a large number of emails were hacked from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England. The emails were between leading climate scientists involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), prompting the media to dub the theft ‘Climategate’.Many believe the emails reveal disturbing evidence of data manipulation and deletion, as well as a conspiracy to silence dissenting scientific opinion. Some have even gone so far as to suggest the entire case for global warming has been manufactured in order to transfer billions of dollars from rich to poor nations.

This Tuesday at 7pm at the Cape Breton Centre for Heritage & Science, Andrew Reynolds, a history and philosophy of science professor at Cape Breton University, will discuss these charges of scientific fraud by offering a comparison to several recent cases of real scientific misconduct; and will provide some historical background into the climate skeptic movement.

Geoff Lee-Dadswell, a physics professor at CBU, will investigate the consensus among the scientific community about global warming; address what scientists mean by “uncertainty”; and summarize the evidence for human-caused global warming with a look at some of the questions that remain unanswered.

In addition to the consensus and controversy surrounding the science and politics of climate change, the discussion will also include a look at some of the ways communities in Cape Breton and around the world are already responding to climate change.

Climate change is a multi-faceted, multiplying and ultimately messy problem. It won’t go away simply by ignoring it. If Homer-Dixon is right, what the world needs is an increase in communication, especially between disciplines, as well as practitioners willing and able to test the assumptions of one discipline against the findings of another. Meanwhile, engaged citizens must be ready to take those findings from the drawing board out into their communities. Perhaps never before has “think global, act local” been so relevant.