Universities are not the solution but the cause of the social problem

(This is a serious-ish piece for QMessenger, QMSU’s weekly newspaper, due to be published next week.)

We students can learn much from Ralph Waldo Emerson – prophet of individualism, self-reliance, the brilliance of man and the folly of the ‘consistent mind’. In these times of education cuts, when we are questioning the value of our individual education, Emerson’s ‘Man Thinking’ – the student that learns to think for him/herself – is surely the goal of higher education: independence, critical awareness, the primacy of argument. The formation of the American university was heavily influenced by his (and Durkheim’s) notion of the professional. “Nature,” Emerson wrote, “arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, and this makes him necessary to society… each is bound to discover what his faculty is, to develop it, and to use it for the benefit of mankind.” This tradition of careerist professionalism dominates our academic landscape as much as it does in the States. Universities are the gateway to the professions. There are few professions that do not require a university education and fewer still are those jobs that can be entered without qualifications of any sort. The problem is not that universities are pulling up the social ladder; it is that our professional culture is dominating our lives and our politics.

The irony of the Left arguing for free university education is that the university is and always has been an expression of class power by and for the middle classes. In the nineteenth century, increased urbanisation and increasing incomes meant professional advice and services became more available and affordable to the middle classes. This demand was stimulated by advances in knowledge and scholarship in the ballooning specialisation of academic fields of interest – in the sciences, in medicine, in law, and so on. This new expertise came to economic fruition via distinct career paths, paths which passed directly through the university. The conditions of modern society mean that we can no longer trust ourselves and our own intuition – we must defer to professionals and are dependent on expert knowledge. This expertise dominates our society and our times, fed by a desire for rational order, self-discipline and self-fulfillment – those staple values of the Victorian middle class. The idea that universities are becoming classist is ludicrous: they always were and still are.

Sure, we live in a complex society. The Marxist waffle about ‘middle classes’ and ‘working classes’ is too general to stand up to scrutiny, least of all in universities where some students are from poor backgrounds, some from the very richest, and some from that big bit in the middle. Actually, that middle (not Ed Miliband’s “squeezed middle”) is a large order of people who are distinct on the basis that they are neither massively rich nor extremely poor and who are in opposition to both the former and the latter. It is precisely this group from which the university takes its student body and into which its students will graduate. The people that we – the educated professionals – will come to exploit are not the immiserated proletariat, but our clients, that is to say, each other. The problem of the career is the alienation of humans from each other, in opposition to each other, for economic self-interest.

The culture of meritocracy perpetuates a hierarchical society which is wrongly seen to be just so long as it springs out of equality of opportunity. Free education is all very well, but it will not stop social division if we all screw each other when we graduate. As professionals we become cut off from human interests and sympathies and seek meaningless professional rewards, becoming intolerant of all disciplines but our own. As our disciplines are founded on economic gain, we are (as is happening now) all too happy to see the arts being jettisoned for more ‘professional’ subjects and for economic ‘justice’ for the poor. Rousseau and Jefferson both stated that one must choose between cultural achievements and social and political justice. They are (hopefully) both wrong, but we are seeing that battle being fought right now and it will change the university forever.