“Our university is not a supermarket!” read one of the fliers I saw posted up around the University College London campus while there to attend a conference this past week. It seems that early November is now the official occasion for militant discontent over austerity and higher education, at least in England. Arriving for the same annual conference a year ago, I’d made my way through streets crowded with students demonstrating against budget cuts and privatization, amidst police who were prepared (so a newspaper said the following morning) to use plastic bullets if the crowd got rowdy, as it had during the huge protests against a proposal to lift the cap on tuitions in November 2010.
Fifty thousand people had turned out for that event -- more than twice as many as even the organizers expected – and a few hundred of them decided to occupy the campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party, which they left considerably worse for wear. Elsewhere, another crowd menaced the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in their Rolls Royce, which was paint-bombed and its rear window smashed.
That was 2010. Nothing so A Tale of Two Cities-ish took place during the November 2011 march through central London. As for next week -- who knows? The National Union of Students has called for a march through central London on November 21, scheduled to coincide with the weekly questioning of the prime minister by members of the House of Commons. Complaining that the government has been “slashing undergraduate teaching funding, increasing tuition fees, introducing draconian restrictions on international students, cutting funding for post-graduate students, [and] hiking fees for adult learners looking to gain basic skills,” the NUS also points to another worsening situation: nearly a million people in England between the ages of 16 and 24 are currently unemployed. (The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, projects rising joblessness among youth to continue as a global trend over the next five years.) The police will probably have their plastic bullets ready next week, come what may.
As slogans go, “Our university is not a supermarket!” impressed me as one that wouldn’t work as a rallying cry in the United States. While Charles Eliot had many sober and lofty reasons for introducing the electives system at Harvard University in the late 19th century, its near-universal adoption throughout undergraduate education in the U.S. surely has more to do with the principle that it’s a good idea to give the customers what they want. (That was a running complaint in the late Jacques Barzun’s reflections on American education, discussed here last month.) It seems that we like our supermarket universities just fine here.
But that's just too cynical, and these are times when we should be ashamed of cynicism rather than proud of it. While writing this, I've gotten word from a philosophy major at Howard University that he and other students will be occupying Alaine Locke Hall on Thursday, November 15, to protest "tuition rates, administrative mistreatment of janitorial staff, and program cuts." These are not the demands of disgruntled consumers, and the protesters are very deliberate about their timing: Thursday is World Philosophy Day.
If their occupation goes on long enough, the students should read a recent volume called What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University. His Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2006) is as trenchant and far-flung a work of cultural history as anything I’ve ever read, and some of its qualities also come through in the occasional pieces he has been writing about higher education since the 1980s, many of them gathered in the new book. Published this spring by Penguin, it is available as a paperback in the U.K. and Canada but not in the U.S., though you can order it to read on Kindle.
Much of it is quite specific to British debates over the reform and restructuring of the country’s university system -- and a few of the older pieces (including one called “Bibliometry,” from the late 1980s, on the use of citation statistics as “performance indicators” for scholars’ work) are now period pieces. But his response to the rise of corporate thinking and management-speak in academe is acerbic in ways that have aged well. “I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry,” one piece begins. “My company specializes in two types of product: we manufacture high-quality, multi-skilled units of human capacity; and we produce commercially relevant, cutting-edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material….Let me put that another way. I’m a university teacher. I teach students and I write books.”
What is there about education and scholarship that gets lost in this sort of "mission statement"-ese? Collini's book is a sustained engagement with that question, but one passage stands out as a memorable formulation of what distinguishes the university from any other institution:
“A university, it may be said, is a protected space in which various forms of useful preparation for life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its interrelations with other, different forms of knowledge. To do this, the teachers themselves need to be engaged in constantly going beyond the confines of the packets of knowledge that they teach, and there is no way to prescribe in advance what will and will not be fruitful ways to do that. Undergraduate education involves exposing students for a while to the experience of enquiry into something in particular, but enquiry which has no external goal other than improving the understanding of that subject matter. One rough and ready distinction between university education and professional training is that education relativizes and constantly calls into question the information which training simply permits.... [Learning of that kind] can only be done through engagement with some particular subject matter, not simply by ingesting a set of abstract propositions about the contingency of knowledge, and the more there already exists and elaborated and sophisticated tradition of enquiry in a particular area, the more demanding and rigorous will be the process of requiring and revising understanding."
Not written with a student demonstration on World Philosophy Day in mind, of course, but it seems fitting.
Adjuncts at St. Joseph's University have the kinds of grievances that have led their counterparts elsewhere to seek union representation, and they may go down that road. But the non-tenure-track faculty members aren't waiting for unionization to raise issues with the administration. A series of meetings and increased activism have already led to raises and more attention for the adjuncts, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 'We've made a lot of noise, and we are in the process of making a lot of noise, and I'm making a lot of noise myself," said Caroline Meline, an instructor in the philosophy department who saw a $280 raise in her per-course pay as a result.
Much of the post-election discussion in the last week has focused on such topics as the "ground game" to get out the vote, and the Obama and Romney campaigns' ability to reach certain voting groups. An article in The New York Times reports on an unofficial, unpaid team of prominent social scientists who advised the Obama campaign. These professors were known as the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists. They provided data-driven advice on such topics as how to counter false rumors about the president, and how to characterize Romney in advertisements.
"I know my time is short," G. tells me, "and I want to pack as much thinking as possible into what’s left."
It's the last night of class in the last course these students can take with me. A mix of nostalgia, excitement and exhaustion is in the air. We are saying goodbye with presentations and food, quick hugs and promises to keep in touch. Against all odds (some acknowledge with stunned expressions), this class has not been a mere deposit in the bank vault of education. We have changed each other.
G. is not dying, just graduating. But tonight feels like the death of ideas. All our fellow thinkers and talkers and dreamers are walking out the door. There’s no structure left to reel them back tomorrow, next week, next year. Our community has dispersed (something we’ve talked about this semester — the virtual nature of community) and the finale, as always, has a melancholy feel.
For the past several weeks, we have collaborated to create what Hemingway might call a "clean, well-lighted place" to question our own practices. Now, the lights are going out throughout the building and, in many ways, throughout the world. Slashed budgets, job cuts, strange politics, war, discrimination, willful misunderstanding, despair. And here we sit, asking, "How is identity formed? What is the nature of community? Who is the oft-cited 'they'?"
After 16 weeks of intellectual abandon, G. and I both know that the space to come and talk about these things is narrowing to a pinpoint of light.
And so he stays to talk after everyone has left, a habit we’ve fallen into these past few months, unusual tonight only because it’s the time most of us — students as well as teachers — are coiled tight and ready to bolt at the precise moment when break begins. It's the latest in a series of late-night concept pitches and strategy sessions about how he can articulate his thoughts without stifling them.
Much later, as I’m driving home, I will think of all the things, trite and otherwise, I should have said. This is not the end; it's a transition. You can never really lose a mind. The universe would not be so cruel to limit thought to a mere 16 weeks. You are leaving the institutionalization of critical thought. Now, you will have to create your own clean, well-lighted place in the face of what can seem like a very dark world. From here on, you have to make it happen.
But for now, we talk as if G.'s interpretation is truly our plight, the only reasonable conclusion given our experience. We discuss biology and culture and personal choice, wrong-headed policies, the future of education, his envisioned place in the corporate world. We make cross-generational references to popular films. We finish each other’s sentences.
"The really exciting thing about J.’s work is—"
"--everything we’ve been talking about is only 5 percent of the potentiality--"
"--even if the theory is ultimately proven false—"
"—it opens up so much—"
Which, we agree, is both terrifying and exhilarating.
G. thinks at warp speed, a far greater velocity than the everyday world requires or supports. A simple assignment turns into a 50-page thesis. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth or pen has several disclaimers, qualifiers, and alternate interpretations lurking behind it. If he tries to follow our mandates to "focus" and “frame,” his work becomes a strangely truncated outline with key connections missing. When everything seems important, editing is an arbitrary act. What to cut? How to choose? In a world full of meaning, which vital thing will you omit?
He's been medicated, counseled, mentored, and rewarded for this. But he remains the passionate explorer. Once an idea grabs him, he can’t seem to edit out intersecting issues. He experiences everything at once. Nothing is backdrop; it’s all center stage. He wants to explain totality. Anything less is a cheat.
"You’ve got to go to grad school," I tell him. We laugh.
We are suddenly aware of a peculiar silence. The building has taken on that hushed waiting that all public spaces get after hours. We can hear little pings and creaks in the walls and air ducts all around us, no longer masked by the rush of humanity through the rooms and halls. It’s long after 10:00 p.m. The security guard rattles the main doors, checks the side entrance. We are about to be "secured," and we decide that we don’t want to be the ones to discover whether exiting after lockdown sets off the alarms.
Backpacks and briefcases gathered, keys jangling as I shut down the computer and enter the security code, we walk, still talking, through the halls and out into the deserted parking lot. My cheap, reliable car sits not far away, in a little pool of streetlight, and we head toward it. As I unlock my door, I glance around the empty lot.
"Where’d you park?" I say, expecting to see his car lurking in the shadows nearby.
He flings one hand toward the deep-dark at the far end of the lot. "Back over there," he says. "I just didn’t want you walking out here alone."
I pause, keys in hand. It’s a courtly gesture, an everyday kindness. But tonight, it feels a lot like hope. I stand here, five thoughts warring at once in my head, each jamming the others so that not a one gets spoken. Because it strikes me just then that we create these clean, well-lighted places for each other. Hope flows both ways. It flows both ways. We conjure these temporary, malleable, and, most importantly, collaborative spaces for, and with, each other. We build them, not as escapes from a world gone unaccountably off track, but as paths through it. And from here on, we’ll have to make that happen. The scaffold is falling away.
"You have my e-mail," I say finally. "Use it." G. gives me a quick smile and saunters off, leaving me in a pool of light.
Don Haussler, an adjunct at Kansas City Kansas Community College, is a popular math instructor who needs a hip replacement. As The Wyandotte Daily News reported, he doesn't have health insurance and can't afford the operation. So students have organized a series of fund-raisers in a "Hip for Haussler" campaign.