The New Academy

by Grant A. Mincy

chalkboard-schoolhouse-school-days-backgrounds-wallpapers-chalkboard-schoolhouse-school-days-pictureMany economists think that the next bubble to burst in our current crisis will be student loans. Student loan debt is at a historic high, and federal loan rates are about to double, from 3.4% to 6.8% – despite a small effort to have student loan interest rates mimic the rates government grants big banks. This debt is an enormous burden on millions of students who cannot find a job in our current economy. These loans are the burden of middle class, working class and low-income students who cannot afford the ever rising cost of college tuition. This burden is incredibly sinister, as syndicalist Noam Chomsky notes:

Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.

Institutions of higher education are becoming places of privilege that serve to keep people in their desired socio-economic status. Today, the academy is becoming increasingly influenced by special interests. As institutions such as MIT conduct war research (most notable during the Vietnam era) while others sell trustee land to oil and gas companies, it has become apparent that state and corporate interests have invaded our universities. As the developed world has (subjectively) moved to post industrialism, “experts” are being held with increasing regard, workers are being replaced by technology (though there are great exceptions) and many people are going back to school for advanced degrees with the hopes of finding a place in today’s economy. This trend has allowed Universities to become leaders in innovation over the past century, bringing the intelligentsia to power. There is reason for concern over this growing trend.

Technical expertise correlates well with aristocracy. As the intelligentsia comes to power, these “experts” may grow (often are) very arrogant and refuse to admit failure. The new academy acts as any other hierarchy as its influence grows. This is incredibly problematic as intellectuals have a duty to analyze arguments and power structures as they have been uniquely trained to do this task. Academic professionals live a life of leisure that is not awarded to working people. As these experts begin working with the system (dependent on the state for grants & corporations and financial institutions for funding) this debt owed to society can easily be forgotten.

A consequence of the new academy may very well be privatization.  As the state and corporate interests encroach on the public education system this becomes a very real possibility. Privatization does two things, raises money for the state, and benefits the upper tier of society, allowing only those with the most capital to afford high tuition rates while a great majority of the public would only be able to attain lower levels of educational training. What better way to destroy free markets? What better way to capture society? What is happening in our universities mimics the bipartisan neo-liberal economic consensus – push the public out-of-the-way and use state power to advance those with a monopoly on capital.

In a free society, built on consensus and freed market exchanges, the radically opposite would occur. As education advances both the individual and the collective, higher education would become incredibly affordable – and this would be rather easy to do. Just imagine reigning in the war-time state, the trillions spent on Iraq alone would cover the cost of higher education for decades. Education itself, its form, its purpose would also radically change. The system would be more democratic as opposed to bureaucratic, students would be able to follow their interests as opposed to interests deemed worthy by the state. Education would become a life long pursuit of knowledge as opposed to an institution that serves only to prepare society for the work force. As human beings are inclined to labor and be creative, in a freed market, education would serve to advance individual and collective interests.

The academy should be an institution that works for the public good. It should be free from centralized power. It should be a hub for intellectualism. The academy should be a place that questions society and its practices. Education should be dedicated to critical analysis of, as opposed to co-operation with, the state, big business and special interests. To fail in this analysis is a betrayal to the public. Abandoning these principles reflects the moral degradation of the new academy – it resembles an abandonment of the quest for a free society, while joining the ranks of institutions who wish to capture society.

There is growing consequence with the current student loan situation. As many are now burdened with this enormous debt – for just doing what they have been told to do (go to college, get a good job, consume, attain the American dream) – there are also an increasing amount of people who hold higher degrees. There is a growing and new intellectual class – those who cannot, will not, or refuse to join the aristocratic class that directly benefits from their debt. Though many with graduate degrees still come from middle (or above) class backgrounds, in the age of bailouts, growing wealth gaps, wage disparity among the divisions of labor, etc, many of these graduates have a choice to make. To defend the status quo, or to revolt and join the struggle of the proletariat.

The proletariat is growing.