Tuesday, May 05, 2015

College and The Problem of Hope

One tends to focus on technological possibilities when debating whether the college has a future. The traditional brick-and-mortar institution often seem too costly and too limiting, from a technological perspective, and therefore, its demise is commonly foretold. But the college continues to defy these death-wishes often by consolidating its prestige and attracting ever more students to it. In most countries in the world, colleges can not take all the students that apply to it, and are often not allowed to charge as much fee as the students are willing to pay to get in, and in such circumstances, the college isn't going to fade out any time soon.

The mortal danger of the college, on the contrary, come from another angle, the lack of hope of change. The point of education is change, for better. College education does not stand for a vacant time for the society to figure out what to with its youngsters - it needs to have a specific purpose for all those preparations and trouble to make sense. And, that purpose needs to be change, the ability of the learner to live a better life and have access to more opportunities. Societies where this hope seems to be real, for example, those emerging ones, the college is indeed alive and well. However, there are those where such hope is dying, and the college is in trouble.

United States is a case in point. The American college was built on the hope of social progress, on what is called the American Dream. The college was very much a part of, if not its fountain, the dream of Middle Class America to make their lives better. As the middle class life stumbles, though, the proposition of the college looks phoney. 

The other, non-national, example can perhaps be found in Workers education movement. At one point in history, education was central to the idea of social change. From Lenin to British Labour Party, a better and a just society stood on the foundation of Higher Education. However, in the developed world, that idea of a better society has been long forsaken. As Steve Fraser writes in his excellent The Age of Acquiescence, the current generation of workers may not be hoping for a change in the social order. This changes the promise of education.

The point of college today, at least in these developed post-industrial nations, is something else. The modern college is designed to be the training ground for modern consumers. The alternative proposition of modern college is not to educate those who will shape their societies or lead the change, as the makers of modern universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would have hoped. The modern college is designed to initiate the students in the modern consumption, equipping them with skills to find subsistence, desire to climb the consumption ladder, literacy to find the most suitable instruments for indebtedness and limited aspiration of liberty constrained to consumer choices.

This creates the problem of hope, which, I shall argue, the greatest existential threat to the college. Pupils go into colleges not to be told to dream about changing the world, but rather to accept the social hierarchy as it is and to seek for consumer nirvana. The point, of course, is that one can not ask people to defer consumption to learn about how to be a consumer. This leads to the colleges turning into consumer colleges (heard the term Party School?) and indeed, to bare its sheer pointlessness.

Indeed, my whole point stands on a distinction between hope and desire. Hope is indeterminate, about something whose shape is unknown but whose allure is all-encompassing. Desire is specific, mapped out, though, in the end, it must be illusory. And, hope is only partly driven by self-interest, unlike desire. The new college based on consumer identity and desire is made viable by the specificity of it, but at the same time, rendered useless because of the same reason. The college, when it becomes a timetable to a degree and a job, is not worth the trouble that comes with it.



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