Monday, March 04, 2019

Boiling Frogbooks: Education's Past and Future

Portrait of the author as a Hampshire Student

I graduated from Hampshire College. Not only that, but I credit Hampshire for much of my early education. It is for this reason that I have followed the news about its current troubles very closely. Hampshire's troubles, and the possibility that the college could close, feel not just like the future being cancelled but the present as well. It is like watching one's very own condition of possibility disappear. I felt the same way about the elimination of the Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture program at Binghamton University. It is like that scene in Looper where the character in the future is literally dissected by the past. 

It is for this reason that I read "Alternative Colleges, and their 'Radical Communal Ideals, Fight for a Future.  Not, the first, or the most critical piece, but one that strikes me in its particular use of what Mark Fisher has called "Capitalist Realism." First, and this is really a minor point, the article states, "The students who had taken over her office were a conscious throwback to the activism of the 1960s, when Hampshire was conceived as an experiment in higher education." Why are building occupations necessarily and irrevocably located in the past, specifically in the sixties the decade that is synonymous with excessive idealism? There were occupations at Hampshire when I was there in the nineties (and at Binghamton as well). Several of the occupations at Hampshire even made the New York Times. A quick search of "Hampshire College" on the New York Times website turns up mostly a history of occupations of various buildings. Moreover, occupations have continued to be a part of student activism globally well into the twenty-first century. I can name a few off of the top of my head, Santa Cruz, Middlesex, and the list goes on. 

With respect to this rhetorical strategy of making something happening in the present appear as a relic of the past I should add somewhat parenthetically that one of the many great classes I took at Hampshire College was a course titled "Europe and its Others." In that class we discussed how Europeans from the early explorers to contemporary anthropologists represented Native Americans and others as relics of the past. Representing something, or someone, as a relic from the past makes their eventual elimination a foregone conclusion. To return from anthropological theory to the article in question it is possible to ask the question why are occupations presented as a misguided relic from a bygone age but colleges with endowments presented as the future of higher education? The irony of course is that endowments predate occupations, predate even the ideal of public education. One could argue that they belong to a past located even further back than those hazy ideals of the sixties, to a time when only the rich or those connected to the rich could afford to go to college, to study anything beyond what is immediately practical. 

This brings me to my second point. The article also contains the following paragraph. 

What I see happening under the aegis of ‘financial responsibility’ is a purging of colleges that serve unconventional students,” said Eva-Maria Swidler, a faculty member at Goddard College, an alternative college in Plainfield, Vt. “What this purge leaves behind is a system of higher education even more focused on either training only the elites in the liberal arts or training everyone else as obedient workers for a corporate work force.”

I find this to be a fairly striking and succinct summation of what is happening in Higher Education, not just at places like Hampshire and Goddard, canaries of another sort, but everywhere as education is reduced to business training. Liberal arts disciplines from Art History to Philosophy are under threat not just at small colleges but at large state universities. This could be cause for alarm, but the article goes onto reassure us that these threats are nothing but the effects of students and families seeking a "desire for a higher return on investment." There is no actual mention of what that return or investment is in this case. As any one in higher education knows it is often a spectre of the job market that plagues higher education. Majors in business just seem more lucrative than liberal arts. 

This brings me to "capitalist realism," specifically the way in which market pressures are presented not as institutions, as things made and unmade by political and social relations, but as facts of nature.  Schools close, newspapers are shuttered, and many of the resources and conditions for critical thought are obliterated, but no one is to blame and no one can complain because these are all nothing but effects of the market. We did not read Mark Fisher when I was at Hampshire (of course he had not published yet) but we did read Roland Barthes. This article strikes me as particular example of what Barthes called Operation Margarine in which drawbacks are clearly pointed out, the reduction of education to elites and employees, only to be waived away at the end with a few words of advice. The article ends with a particular bit of practical wisdom, a student who checks a university's endowment before enrolling. The market, however it is perceived or understood, is a fact of life. The only way to act is to adapt to its demands. To seek the best return on one's investment, and to properly research the individual risks. Anything else, any attempt to change those conditions, risks invoking radical communal ideals, risks being seen as a relic of the past before it even begins.  

All of this reminds me of the following remark by Franco "Bifo" Berardi on the university:

"The defining feature of the modern university was the autonomy of knowledge (namely its autonomy from the primacy of theology). The contemporary imposition of the economy's primacy, however, implies the cancellation of the autonomy of knowledge. Identifying the economy as the universal criterion of evaluation has in fact re-established a sort of theology in the relation between learning and (economic) absolute truth." 

To which I would add that whereas it was possible to critique the old theology through philosophy, dismantling the proofs for the existence of God and the entire metaphysics it rests upon, the new theology does not make arguments, or require proofs. It imposes itself not from above, from the church, but from below, as it channels every desire, most notably the basic desire to preserve oneself into its terms. It converts everyone by claiming to believe in nothing. 

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