Friday, 27 February 2009

Fantasy Student Land

The failure of the left in the 20th Century and today could perhaps be said to be a failure of imagination; a failure to penetrate other minds. It is a failure that is felt most keenly by those who self consciously place themselves to the left of the political spectrum, but the weight of the ever growing disaster of modern society must now, in varying degrees, surely be felt by all. The program for its remedy must be daring, audacious and inspiring and it is in the communication of each other's ideas that the imagination must take fire. University should be a place where this sort of creativity is fostered and allowed to flourish.
We have to take heed of the fact that in the current atmosphere, the current state of things, to ask someone to see beyond the formal logic and idealism that has been instilled in them since childhood, is asking a lot. To see the world of capital, with all its false and socially constructed categories, for what it is and thus recognize the need for change requires a rigorous and self motivated materialist stance and a firm, dialectical grasp of the world as it unfolds. The root of this kind of understanding must of course be in education.
It seems so obvious, so fundamental that education should be free for all that it seems almost churlish to express it in writing. If we are to invest anything at all in the progress of humanity, if we are to struggle towards the free and open society in which the curious, sentient and autonomous agents known as humans are destined to dwell, we are absolutely obliged to strive for this. Universities should be completely open communities for intellectual enrichment that allow anyone to come and go as they please. The only goal is to produce well-rounded and, above all, free thinking individuals. To this end, there need be no set requirements to enter and proceed to the next year of study, no element of competition except for intellectual stimulation. In this community of learning, open debate and energy, the alienation of the student population can also be overcome.
The reality of higher education is, and has been so disparate from this vision that such a rounded and inspirational education seems a wild and improbable dream. The experience of student life today is something quite different. Of course, its very easy to point out what a loathsome, slovenly and pretentious lot we all are really. A typical student's day might begin at about 1pm following a cruel and rude awakening by an incensed neighbor complaining about the previous night's noise. Seventeen cups of tea, a leftover chop suey and a Sopranos box set later and we're just about ready to go back out into the world, by which of course I mean the pub. We are the supreme kings of our own student fantasy lands; daytime television is our banquet, big brother's hapless whelps are our jesters and Paul O'Grady is our closest and most trusted advisor. After the initial excitement of landing in our new University setting is passed, we're ready and willing to fully commit to our fantastical sofa kingdoms. Forced indoors by financial decrepitude and the weight of parental expectation, it isn't surprising that so many students enter into these daytime TV-based, vaguely nihilistic fantasies, which are really a sort of depression. Stuck in limbo between a protective family existence and the frosty embrace of the market economy, it isn't long before the fantasy starts to unravel; Paul O'Grady isn't funny, Noel's house party is well and truly over and Carol Vorderman has made the transition from the borderline sexually appealing to the downright disturbing. It's the sort of thick, muggy inertia that sets in when you really can't remember what on earth you were striving for.
Once the spell is broken, it becomes clear what the true nature of University education is. The student at this or that institution has been under the misapprehension that he or she is incredibly lucky, even privileged to be there; a veil of expectation surrounds the whole university experience, dissuading the student from asking the vital questions. "Am I actually enjoying this?" and "Is it worthwhile"? "What am I even studying for?" In fact, the systems of higher education currently in place in Britain very precisely serve the needs of capital. In essence, and a useful phrase to remember, they need us more than we need them. Young people are flocking into Universities by the thousands, unaware of the future burden of the hefty loans that 'allow' them to get there. What the British economy needs is educated workers; white collars; office dolts, and thats exactly what our redesigned educational institutions are churning out. As soon as graduation day is over, the carpet of student bank account overdrafts is pulled out from under our feet and the majority of students are forced into poorly paid and banal work to avoid complete financial oblivion.
It is important to state at this point that I am by no means advocating a nostalgia for the dusty University institutions of old. The main purpose of these systems was to provide the progeny of the wealthy ruling classes with a crash course in general culture before rejoining the ranks of owners and exploiters - an environment in which they could test the efficacy of different ideas and models, debates and discussions, in order to learn how to rule society. There is no 'golden age' of free education where campuses were abound with milk and honey - within the framework of generalized commodity production (Marx's definition of capitalism) education is for sale, whether Working Links plc or the British state provides the service. While some Universities still cling on to this air of academic detachment and exclusivity, the changing needs of Capital are rendering them ever more anachronistic.
Higher education is a crucial part of a young person's development. Universities should provide an environment where students have time to think, study, experiment and, crucially, live away from the family environment and develop into individuals in their own right. Courses should be open and flexible to give students the opportunity to educate themselves in a more complete and well rounded manner, with technical skills being taught alongside more academic subjects. The strict separation of these subjects and different skill sets in the current educational system forces students to specialize far too early and they can often leave university equally as naive and helpless as when they entered, or perhaps even more so. Most importantly of all, the system of higher education must be free and democratic. In other words, it needs to be radically transformed from it's current state. We must treat the current university system as an obstacle to be overcome; not to be tweaked and tidied, but demolished and rebuilt. Let's be clear: we demand nothing less from the state than an eduction which can equip us all to become the knowledgeable, fully-rounded humanoids able to change this ailing world and usher in human freedom, anything else is simply not acceptable. In the meantime, we should strive to operate our own educational program outside the state system, in universities, meetings and social events.
To once again draw reference from the world of daytime television, and that show most keenly watched by students, I leave you with a countdown-style anagram; t o i n l r e v u o. See you after the break.

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