Despite their preeminence in research and prestigious names, the major universities of the US are not performing a basic task necessary for the continued health of the country. Universities do not educate students on how to be democratic citizens. In fact, in many ways they positively discourage it. College educations do not encourage independence of mind and spirit — typically, they encourage students to become dependent on the institutions and pre-defined life paths ahead of them. Mainly I will seek here to raise questions about how students and educators could do a better job of bringing democracy back into college.
Public engagement in the political process requires emerging from a private realm where you have formed your ideas and then somehow voicing them in front of others. Traditionally, the private realm was a man’s household and land, within which he was solely responsible. But for college students today, what would our “household” be? Despite being old enough to fight in a war, students typically aren’t even self-sufficient financially. We own little to no property; we rarely hold positions of serious power; in some sense we do not pass the coming-of-age ritual into middle-class adulthood until we graduate. How can we learn anything of the practice and pitfalls of political responsibility if we have none?
What’s still left to a student in college is typically their “future,” upon which they mortgage the money to pay for their education, and participation in whatever social communities alive on the campus. Of course, some students do find engagement off campus via part-time jobs or volunteering, and others manage to obtain some degree of actual influence on campus through rare positions of student leadership that are taken seriously by the administration. But I’m concerned here with the majority of students who are not pushed toward such opportunities and in fact could not be accomodated en masse if they did all seek engagement.
How, then, can a student’s future be a basis for an autonomy analogous to the independence of a family farm or a small business owner? Perhaps the answer is simple: the future is a basis for autonomy when a student expects his or her career will lead to autonomy eventually. One might say that the common contemporary equivalent to the family farm is the independent consultant, the expert whose skills are portable from one situation to the next. The consultant is autonomous in the world of giant institutions and corporations that are out of date by structural necessity and constantly need the input of more flexible outsiders who can reform bureaucracies without suffering any political backlash. Similarly, the entrepreneur or innovator escapes dependence by taking enormous risks on ideas and products too far out for big companies to even imagine. In this case, then, the majority of students would have to imagine themselves as independent consultants or entrepreneurs, which is not a practical goal for many majors in addition to being an eventual contradiction of terms: consultants survive as long as they are not the majority, because they live off of the problems of many big corporations.
If most graduates are going to end up working for other people, i.e. are going to be dependent toeing some corporation or other institution’s line, how can the idea of the “future” be a source of independence for a student still in college? An alternative would be to ensure that any time not spent at work could support the ability to engage meaningfully in the public pursuits of the student’s choosing. The idea of inspiring students to a life of learning has something of this answer about it, and indeed many people who have found themselves impoverished of other freedoms have sung the praises of the freedom of imagination and the mind. Along this line of thought, then, we would have to ask how college education can support the freedom of mind and the ability to bring reflective judgment to public engagement outside the constraints of work.
But more basically, students would have to obtain the idea that this is what their education was for. And indeed, nothing in college curriculums makes any sort of indication that its value is a freedom of thought and action outside the career, in those precious few hours left between arriving home from work at night and leaving the house again in the morning. What stands against this liberal arts conception of the meaning of education? The narrow-minded specialization of the professors teaching undergrads would be one factor: only rarely do professors imagine that the value of their course is in opening up a student’s mind for the rest of his or her life; instead, they typically view it (at best) as necessary content for becoming another professor of whatever subject. But to dig deeper we’ll need to investigate what students could possibly gain from a college education that would give them an autonomy stronger than mere employability. We would need to see in what way college could give students a freedom to pursue their own meaning in life independent of the concerns of necessity, such as a basic income. To be continued…