Has the elimination of scarcity from most developed nations led to relative relief of workers’ alienation, or simply to its increase in new, unprecedented forms?
What’s the point of going to college? Yes, it’s a pleasant, socially sanctioned delay of adulthood, a time carved out for privileged youth to discover the pleasures of quasi-independent taste formation, sexual disinhibition, recreational drug abuse, and various other hedonistic pursuits. Students have a chance to discover “who they really are” and where they fit in the social hierarchy while in a protected environment that insulates them from the consequences of many of their tentative choices. They have a chance to calibrate just how much they will need to conform.
But college is not merely a training ground for late-capitalist consumerism. For those unfortunates for whom college is not an endless party, it may be the beginning of their reconciliation with ceaseless toil; the grind of exams and term papers is the foretaste of a future life to be spent processing information uncomprehendingly from an office cubicle. These go-getters, strivers and aspirants soldier on with the promise of an irrefutable job credential in view, the talismanic diploma, their ticket to relative security, an assurance they won’t be consigned to the hate pit with the rest of the reserve army of the underemployed.
Could it be, however, that some people actually go to college to try to learn something? Might some people want not merely the diploma but actual knowledge? Economists have long argued that college improves the “human capital” of students; graduates are better able to find jobs and earn more when hired. But sorting out what it is about college education that adds value is not so simple; the skills acquired there may be superfluous in comparison with the signaling value of having been admitted to an elite institution, which tells employers that one either comes from an acceptable class background or is capable of jumping through the appropriate hoops to demonstrate fealty to the elite class’s interests. Considering the policy of lax grading at many of these universities, just getting in seems to be sufficient proof that a student deserves a permanent competitive advantage. No one expects you to list a GPA on a résumé — telling in itself — but even perfect grades at a non-elite school won’t keep your résumé out of the trash can when there are Ivy Leaguers in the hirer’s stack.
Higher education, it seems, fails to integrate its many conflicting functions.
But college’s being about credentialing would seem to make the entire edifice of secondary education a big charade. Though there certainly are exceptions, most professors clearly aren’t so cynical or in such colossal bad faith as to approach their teaching as a total waste of everyone’s time. They think it matters. And motivated students seem to appreciate learning for its own sake, whether or not that helps them gain an economic footing in society.They want to learn because it’s intrinsically satisfying to know things and to have a forum in which to deploy that knowledge. They are doing the classwork not because it factors in to their ultimate hireability but because it perhaps supplies a feeling of mastery and growth, or perhaps because it intuitively feels right. For instance, I received no practical rewards for reading every page of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in order to write a paper about epistolary novels. I don’t even have a copy of that paper anymore. But I don’t want that time back. I may not be able to put into specific words what good that experience did me, but that is precisely the point. If I could explain it, it would become a means to some other concrete goal, a tool. It would be instrumentalized, a credential. But as long as the benefits remain indescribable and not contingent on some other success, the experience becomes an ineffable analogue for the experience of freedom, the free play of the imagination. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant describes this “free beauty”:
Here we presuppose no concept of any purpose for which the manifold is to serve the given object, and hence no concept what the object is to represent; our imagination is playing, as it were, while it contemplates the shape, and such a concept would only restrict its freedom.
Higher education, ideally, works in this sphere, carving out an oasis of pure freedom, fulfilling the uniquely human potential for imaginative autonomy. But capitalism, which depends on measurable productivity and instrumental reason, typically denies us a way of making that idealized education socially meaningful. Capitalism doesn’t care about our freedom of imagination; it prefers we direct our cognitive abilities toward calculation, innovation and material aspirations. We should dream within the parameters established by vicarious longing — fantasizing about prefabricated lifestyles and belongings, about becoming celebrities whose identities are themselves fabricated.
The disjunction between an idealistic education and the requirements of capitalism leads to drop-outs with degrees who freeload off of society, pursuing their own esoteric interests while contributing nothing usable. Alternatively, graduates find they have been trained into a condition of inevitable frustration, “overqualified” for the socially necessary but soul-crushingly dull tasks that they are expected to feel lucky about having fallen their way.
Higher education, it seems, fails to integrate its many conflicting functions. It serves simultaneously as a sheer consumer good (self-enriching entertainment for students), as a raw material of production (practical skills are transmitted to workers), as a mandatory furlough period to ease job market pressures, as a way to stock individuals with critical networking skills for the “social factory,” and as a way of sorting workers into their various destinies based on their ability to figure out the game of capitalism (how to acquire status that can masquerade as hard capital by getting into the right schools at the right time) and master its strategy (by figuring out who is worth knowing and how to manipulate them into helping you).
As a result, “human capital” becomes a useful ideological slogan that assigns priority to higher education’s industrial functions. At the Economist’s View blog, Mark Thoma linked to this post by economist Frances Woolley, which examines the ideological underpinnings of the term human capital and asks whether it stems from what we actually know or if it’s just a matter of credentialing.
For example, if what is taught at universities actually makes people more productive, then simply taking university courses should be enough increase earnings. In fact, to get much of a payoff from university education, you have to finish your degree (the “sheepskin effect” ). One reason education pays is that completing a degree “signals” your ability, determination, competence and general stick-with-it-ness….
Ontario’s government is urging universities to increase retention rates, so everyone who starts university completes a degree. If the human capital theory is true, then this is sound policy: more students completing university means more human capital means a more productive economy. If, however, the value of university education is as a signal of ability, then one of the most important things that universities do is fail students. Unless some students fail, the ability to complete a university degree confers no special distinction on the graduate….
If, however, education is basically about sorting workers — if people are getting more and more degrees in hope of eventually capturing that one elusive stable professional job with benefits — then the best way of responding to the demographic crisis is to scale back post-secondary education. Doing so would effectively increase the size of the working age population substantially, easing demographic problems.
If GDP is the only social aim worthy of a state’s attention, then this would seem good, inevitable advice. Forget the metaphysical mumbo jumbo and concentrate on what can be counted. But asking the government to scale back educational subsidies is hard advice to accept, even if it would end the arms race in advanced degrees and the credentialing inflation that makes a master’s a prerequisite for more and more jobs. To pursue such a course is to dismiss the idea that education enriches human potential altogether (or, if you prefer, it defines human potential in terms of industrial output alone). But it’s far preferable to believe that higher education can help people live richer, fuller lives and can make us aware of new possibilities and different ways of thinking. And as Christopher Merrill and Linda K. Kerber argue in this Huffington Post piece, lack of training in the humanities (quick to be cut back for its supposed uselessness and impracticality) leads to cultural tolerance for abuses like torture. “While it is possible to gauge economic value, to measure growth and decline, to take readings of all manner of things,” they write, “it is difficult to measure the value of a human life — which is precisely where the humanities figure. We need history, literature, and philosophy, and indeed all the humanities, to understand, insofar as it is possible, the meaning of life and death.”
“Impractical” education can also nourish our curiosity and provide it with new avenues to explore and strengthen itself. Even if we can’t prove it, it’s worth having institutions that are committed to the possibility, particularly since no public space remains outside of universities for such an ideal to flourish, nor do any appear to be developing. Thoma’s autobiographical anecdote in his response to Woolley is a pretty good example of educational faith turned into praxis. In recounting his escape from his destiny as a tractor-parts salesman, Thoma defends education for its own sake rather than for productivity:
Even if I’d ended up selling tractor parts, what I learned at Chico is something nobody could have ever taken away from me. We often forget about the education part of education and focus on the vocational training aspect, but to me the broad-based liberal arts education is one of the more valuable parts of the education I received.
He concludes that “education is the key to a better future and I will not give up trying to increase access to as many people as possible. I don’t care at all if it dilutes the signal to employers, they’ll just have to figure out some other way to cull the herd.”
In essence, Thoma is arguing that the needs of employers should not trump the human needs of individuals — a stolid, fairly uncontroversial position, exactly the sort of bromide one would expect to hear from professors defending their institutions. But it hints at a more radical vision, echoing, for instance, Herbert Marcuse’s argument in Eros and Civilization, his late 1950s elaboration of Freudian theory. In emphasizing the emancipatory potential of pleasure, Marcuse dismisses the cult of productivity as a capitalist distortion of human capabilities:
Productivity … expresses perhaps more than any other idea the existential attitude in industrial civilization; it permeates the philosophical definition of the subject in terms of the ever transcending ego. Man is evaluated according to his ability to make, augment, and improve socially useful things. Productivity thus denigrates the degree of the mastery and transformation of nature: the progressive replacement of an uncontrolled natural environment by a controlled technological environment. However, the more the division of labor was geared to utility for the established productive apparatus rather than for the individuals — in other words the more the social need deviated from the individual need — the more productivity tended to contradict the pleasure principle and to become an end in itself.
But, he argues, historical conditions are so improved by productivity that individuals can begin to see the way back to their own needs; they are afforded enough leisure to conceive strategies for ending “the subjugation of man to his labor.” Education begins to push in two contradictory directions, honing productivity while teaching people not to waste that productivity on meaningless work and channel it instead into developing their own potential.
When you strip away the Freudian claptrap, Marcuse’s argument is basically that we misapprehend the needs of the system for our own wants and needs.
At its heart, Eros and Civilization celebrates education (in the broadest sense of the word) for its own sake and not as preparation to reproduce the existing social order. When you strip away the Freudian claptrap, Marcuse’s argument is basically that we misapprehend the needs of the system for our own wants and needs. In other words, we become convinced that we need to go to college to get a job rather than to learn, and that the job market will reveal to us what we should do with our lives and our time. This self-imposed passivity is a result of what Marcuse calls “surplus repression” — society’s way of forcing us to work by stifling our libidinal impulses to do something more satisfying.
Sufficiently repressed, we can be meekly diverted toward alienated labor (working for somebody else and not on something that we are personally invested in) that is not really necessary any longer for survival (at least in developed nations — whether we are obligated to perpetuate capitalism in the West so its benefits can trickle down and liberate the poorer countries is a different question). Marcuse writes, “The elimination of surplus repression would per se tend to eliminate not labor but the organization of the human existence into an instrument of labor.” That is basically what’s at stake in defining the purpose of higher education: Either it is worker training and sorting, supported by capital and carried out for its benefit, or it is a refuge from that organizing logic, a place where one discharges surplus repression and learns what it can mean to be a human (hence, the humanities). The question of human capital, then, is not what sort of training people need to enhance their value, but whether capitalism can afford humans to exempt themselves from becoming capital.
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.