The Problem with Higher Education (& What We’re Doing about It)
We admit that our title is a bit disingenuous. There is certainly no “the” single problem with higher education. The problems are myriad: the university is exclusionary; it reproduces already existing class structures; at best it maintains social inequity and at worst exacerbates it through predation and exploitation (McMillan Cottom). The university is full of hypocrisy. Students are rarely given the opportunity to study, yet they are also not afforded the rights of workers (Bousquet). Administrative bloat dams up resources, leaving actual educators with the smallest trickle. Even those who are there teaching critical analyses of the structures of oppression reproduce them: the Marxist professors in charge live in McMansions while graduate students are expected to survive on wages far below living wage; the Feminists enforce gatekeeping to journals and prestige despite claims of subversion. Worse, as repeated sexual harassment claims tell us, the power dynamics of the university enable pernicious behavior by the former, while encouraging the latter to sweep such behaviors under the rug (Ahmed). Meanwhile, racial diversity initiatives fail repeatedly to diversify faculty and students…
We know that this is not always the case, but it is often the case. And those who would guide graduate students to jobs through study refuse to acknowledge that the structure of university has changed, and the vast majority of jobs are part-time, low-paying, and without benefits. Good jobs are so rare, we might as well say there are no jobs: the profession has been decimated, and the larger economy is in ruins. These days, the university produces certificate programs and undergraduate majors for professional jobs that do not give the skills to do those jobs: businesses want students with humanities skills — writing, critical reading, art & design — while the business school cranks out managers. The humanities — including the study of arts and culture — become mere adjuncts to the business major, a check mark to a degree, not a route to meaning-making and exploration of creative cultural and artistic expression, the fulfillment of human potential.
Given the conditions in which we currently labor, there is nothing wrong with being a manager; in fact, we would often be happy to have managerial jobs, which certainly pay better than the lower rungs of higher education. But what happens in reality is that we enter into a world of bullshit jobs (Graeber), while holding tight to the dreams of not only upward mobility, but also a life of thought and study that higher education seemed to promise. We are left agreeing with those who have asked: Are there even still students in the university? (Polygraph Collective). And if the problem is not the dream but the reality, how can we manifest the dream: to take what we learned in and from and around higher education, and redeploy it for everyone? (Harney & Moten). How can we make universal study possible away from the university?
We admit that it is not our personal path to address the issues of higher education from inside it. But we admire those who collectivize, form unions, strike, and demand new conditions for those employed in higher education, and we stand in solidarity with them. We admire those students in higher education who somehow, through some miracle, despite the university, come to think deeply about their worlds: culture, politics, arts, the value of their own lives and those around them. We admire those who, outside the university’s walls, often excluded by it, study on their own. What we can do, in a small way, is make a space for study, and make it as accessible as possible.
Our dream is to move study out of the university, and into the commons: into the spaces in which we already create social life together. One space is the bar, the longstanding home of the “ubiquitous social activity” of drinking (Nicholls). As Fred Moten notes, being asked about radical alternatives to university study: “You mention bourbon, and I don’t think it’s peripheral” to such study. We know, of course, that bars are not free from the problems outlined above, but outside of deeply entrenched power differentials and paralyzing bureaucracy, we believe we can create an intentional space conducive to the creative well-being of workers and students, while re-valuing the role of the student, of thinking, outside the corporate university. But for now, the bars are closed, and we find new spaces to study. So we continue online, being together in a compromised way, but together nonetheless.
We know that we live in a world of compromise. That all too often, those who want to give away their labor, to share equitably, to do the labor of care and education for the love of care and education, end up exhausted, short on resources, and have to give up. We are trying to live in that compromise as best we can. So we are offering classes in the humanities and arts, classes meant to give deeper insight into ourselves and help us understand the world around us, on a sliding-scale, donation basis. Our instructors, too, are dealing with the fall out of the pandemic, the loss of jobs, the closing of businesses. We are not independently wealthy. We want to affirm the value of the labor that we bring to Night School. And yet, still, we want to share in a community of study that is not exclusionary. So we lean into the Marxist principle, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” We hope that those who can pay will, and those who cannot will be supplemented by those who can, and that we can continue to offer these classes, while sustaining ourselves, both materially and mentally. Most of all, we hope this might serve as one alternative model to higher education, creating a more equitable space to study together, a true community of students.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (The New Press, 2017).
Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education & the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008).
Sara Ahmed, “Equality Credentials,” feministkilljoys.com (June 2016).
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018).
Polygraph Collective, Polygraph 21: Study, Students, Universities (2009)
Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
James Nicholls, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England (Manchester University Press, 2011).