Today, students are faced with a number of intimidating contradictions. To what degree can we follow our interests in a way that is economically viable? How can the pursuit of knowledge, whose purpose is the overcoming of boundaries and traditional ways of being, function within an institution like the university which increasingly demands the sterilizing commodification of knowledge? Is there a way to appropriate knowledge produced by a system of exploitation towards the project of liberation?
In a large sense, each of the preceding questions can be boiled down to the question of what it means to be a student in an ultimately capitalist institution like the university.
To be such a student is to face a future of uncertainty and poverty. The obscenely rising rates of tuition and in turn, student loans make it seem like we are pouring more into the university than we are given in return. With such a future on the horizon, one can justifiably question the validity of pursuing knowledge at a university. Perhaps expanding our intellectual horizons was from the beginning merely an ornamental indulgence.
This solution will likely sit unsatisfactorily for a great number of students who engage with their respective fields passionately instead of pragmatically, and with good reason. To obtain an education simply for the financial promise it holds is ultimately contradictory to its fundamental purpose of revealing new horizons of possibility.
Yet we must be careful not to analyze the situation too one-sided. As students, the knowledge that we pursue is inseparable from the institutions that we participate in. If there is to be a solution to the apparent contradiction in which we find ourselves, it is imperative that we take both aspects of our education into account.
What exactly is an institution? An online definition presents it as “an organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program.” Such establishments logically imply explicit boundaries in which to operate.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is flexible. Though this flexibility allows for its utilization by institutional power, it can equally be a tool for freeing ourselves from institutional oppression.
As universities become more privatized and administrative interests become more focused on producing marketable degrees, the space within which students will be encouraged to pursue knowledge will become more narrow.
Yet knowledge has a damaging way of undermining the very forces that seek to put it to use. It is always testing borders, providing a bridge between the exclusionary and the excluded with the power to demolish any illusion of difference between the two.
In the words of the American philosopher John Dewey, “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Life is a constant process of becoming. It cannot be restrained for long under desolate institutions. It is driven outwards towards its opposite, towards what those who would seek to establish themselves above life seek to exclude. Knowledge is the same in this.
Thus, as the institution’s vision becomes narrower, that which lay outside its line of vision expands to the point of bursting. Our responsibility as students is to accelerate this bursting, to reignite the fires of our passion for knowledge and overcome the limits imposed by institutional interests.
— Brad Waldraff is a philosophy senior