A long-view criticism of “free” college

What I find deeply disappointing about the drive in America for “free” higher education is that these institutions – as capitalist and therefore profit-driven as any – are failing our youth so incredibly that we have now the chance to realize they are unnecessary and transcend them. The preconditions of this realization are everywhere. All around us are alternative means; opportunities to learn for free, or very cheaply. The myth, therefore, of “free” education is not, as the conservative or libertarian imagines, that “nothing is free”, but that education is already free. But this knowledge must be kept from youth at all costs. Thus we will grant these old and failing institutions further privilege and entrench their monopoly over youth ambition, as well as their cultural monopoly over academia and artistic success.

“Higher” education is synonymous with “divide and conquer” of the working class, but brought to you by liberals. Specialization of skill (“What are you going to college for?”) and ubiquity of access (“Everyone should go to college.”) are merely the means to this end and they perpetuate the same elitist myth that poverty is a condition resulting from the individual’s lack of skill, knowledge, frugality, effort, etc., as opposed to the reality that poverty is a systemic disadvantage expressed economically.

The modern conception of education is shaped by this myth, along with the neoliberal ethos of competition and personal and economic growth. To educate one’s self to increase one’s own wages, with no concern for the wages of your class generally, is what “higher” education demands. For education itself cannot increase wages generally, but can only increase the wages of some relative to others. Just as literacy is a highly-prized skill until everyone learns to read, a degree is useless when it become universal.

Free education, therefore, will do no more for the condition of poverty than charity does, except in so far as it educates people to observe and alter the conditions, not of their own life, but of their class and human-kind generally; to liberate not just themselves by getting ahead, but to understand the edifice which produces poverty and eradicate it. Degrees are useless in themselves to this end; and this end is not what they are constituted to achieve.

Ironically, however, it is in the hope of achieving this greater consciousness that we ought to deliver free education to the youth of America. To use the cultural advantages of a system against that system is in line with history and the dialectic. But, to accomplish this, we must maintain a critique of the unquestioned cultural status of the university and an eye on transcending it while understanding that it is already unnecessary, because the kind of education Americans truly need is already free. The university neither educates us towards this end nor has a stake in its dawning – or do we believe that entrenched and powerful institutions have a stake in their own abolition? The most privileged graduates will still go on to fill the boardrooms of big business, lobbyist and political organizations, Congress, and of course the colleges themselves, that the system perpetuate. The rest will toil as they do now. Some will find success. Most will grow more restless. It is this restlessness that gives me hope, and also disappoints me, because I sense America is very tense now, and ready for something beyond itself – yet, still, we turn back, or in, and trust what has failed us.

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“Higher” education serves to corroborate the specialized and financial role of the artist in capitalism, of the creator as mere producer. There is not enough imagination for what else education is or could be, for how education could be separated from existing educational institutions. There is only the clamor to grant them more power and affirm their necessity even as they are in crisis. We will embrace their elitism in the name of equality; embrace their hierarchy in the name of expanded access. All we expand access to is the game – we are not changing the rules. There can be no real critique of capitalism if we are educated by its institutions, unless the graduates see their advantages for what they are and turn about to abolish what has benefited them. Thus, I fear: the cultural left used to believe, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”; now it’s “Buy in, build on, climb up.”

I maintain a different vision: 20-somethings should be naked and fucking; setting fire to worn-down buildings and making the comforted uncomfortable. They should not be building resumes. Realize the institutions which claim to teach us are unnecessary to us for that end. We have history, we have tradition. We have technology, we have ourselves. All that “higher” education guarantees us is a job. Yet even here it fails. What it succeeds in is the placation of our fire with the suffocating gird of debt, ambition, and career. Those who expand do so by filling the same space, consuming the same oxygen, the same opportunities, that others seek, thus denying them. This is the definition of competition and it has no place in what nature has provided free. We must abolish what surrounds us and breathe again.


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