Contradictions of “higher” education

The Quebec student strike achieved something extraordinary in the history of Canadian left organizing. CLASSE in particular demonstrated how direct democracy can mobilize a seemingly apathetic population. I don’t have statistics, but it appears that the movement succeeded in getting a majority of Quebec postsecondary students not only to be active in their student unions, but to endorse a strike and, perhaps more significantly, to understand the strike as an action aimed beyond the defense of student interests to opposing to the broader neo-liberal agenda of privatizing post-secondary eduction.

But, according to CLASSE activists who spoke at the University of Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago, the strike did not achieve legitimacy with a majority of Quebec adults outside of the student population (aside from the wave of sympathy that followed on the passage of Bill 78). I’m not especially knowledgeable about the particulars of Quebec political culture, so I can’t begin to explain fully why this was the case. However, I suspect that part of the reason for this could be rooted in the structure of university education itself, and the contradictory quality of that institution.

Immanuel Wallerstein provides a useful brief overview of the history of the university system and its current problems, here. The university system was developed in Europe in the Middle Ages to transmit class privilege from one generation to the next, and to reproduce elite culture.  For centuries this was the unquestioned purpose of a university education: to socialize the (mostly male) offspring of elite families, ensuring that these children grew up into the same elite status their parents enjoyed.  Only in the past century has this elitist purpose been modified significantly.

Over the course of the 20th century, and particularly since 1945, the university system has been opened up to women, non-Whites, and to working-class people.  The accessibility of universities to the children of middle- and lower-class families has depended on heavy government subsidies keeping tuition costs down. The effect of public funding for university education, in combination with a publicly funded primary and secondary school system that can adequately prepare its students for university study, has been to make university education a vehicle for upward class mobility.  For decades, the hope of many lower and middle class parents  in sending their children to university was that those children would enjoy a higher class position than they themselves did.

At its most effective, then, public funding of universities has been one form of downward wealth redistribution, both because the education costs of children from poorer families were being paid from taxes on wealthier individuals and on business, and because of this intergenerational class mobility effect.  Universities, like many other public institutions, have been for a long time now the site of a fight over the extent of government-backed downward wealth redistribution.  (This kind of fight is what I immediately think of when I think of Gramsci’s concept of war of position.)  For a while, the proponents of middle and lower class groups gained a lot of ground, while for most of my adult life the trend has been in the other direction. But the fight is not over.

Anyways, for a variety of reasons universities no longer provide upward class mobility as well as they have done. Rising tuition costs are one reason for this: less affluent students are discouraged from attending, or graduate with lots of debt.  Rising tuition is one very direct way of privatizing the costs of university education. So one effect of privatizing these costs is to reduce inter-generational class mobility, i.e. to help preserve elite positions in society for those born into elite families.

But let’s assume that this wasn’t the case and that universities continued to be economically accessible, or even that they become progressively more accessible over time instead of less. What effects does this have on the class structure of our society?

High inter-generational class mobility means that highly paid jobs are more broadly available to anyone. But they still cannot be available to everyone.  If the child of an elite family faces genuine competition for an elite job from the child of a poor family, or from one hundred children from poor and middle-class families, then that particular individual may no longer occupy the social status their parents had.  But that will be because someone else took their place on that tier of the social pyramid.

So even if university education was available to anyone, it’s not possible for everyone to benefit from it, at least not directly. In this sense it is a vehicle of privilege no matter how accessible it is.

More fundamentally, university education as it is currently practiced does nothing to challenge the alienation of labour-power or the rights of private capital.

When I teach my courses, I assign students grades. It’s almost unthinkable that I would do otherwise. Moreover, I’m expected to assign a range of grades indicating that some students did better than others.  (Dr. Denis Rancourt was fired from his position at the University of Ottawa for teaching his physics courses on a pass-fail basis.) It is therefore integral to my teaching activity that I rank my students, and that I teach in a way that allows for this ranking. In this way I am implicated in stratifying my students, giving them differential access to scholarships and awards, to higher-level degree programs, and ultimately to jobs in the labour market.

Moreover, the value of the degree that I help to confer depends not only on the practical skills that it certifies, but on its symbolic prestige. So it is in my interest, the interest of my institution, and even my students’ interests that a certain mystique attaches to that degree and to the disciplinary knowledge that it symbolizes.  As Pierre Bourdieu’s work points out, much of what a student learns at school is not concerned with particular skills but with a disposition, a general feel for the game, suitable to one or another position in the labour market.

In a completely egalitarian system of education, all teaching would be completely de-mystified, learning would be conducted on a pass-fail basis in which failure carried no penalty beyond the time involved in repeating a course, and degrees would certify the acquisition of definite skills rather than a class disposition.

But for this to work, the labour market itself would have to be non-stratified. And for that to happen, labour-power would have to be socialized, controlled by those whose bodies and minds it comes from, not alienated as a commodity owned by capital.

Can universities become a site of pressure for a the abolition of alienated labour, and not just for the restoration of downward wealth redistribution within capitalist society? Can university students come to believe that it is in their interests to abolish the mystique of their own education?

I’d like to think they could.

One thought on “Contradictions of “higher” education

  1. Pingback: Educating for Equality « The Practical Theorist

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