I recently toyed with going back to school for graduate study in mathematics, going so far as to apply to a university. I won’t parade all the details, but I think it was a positive experience. I reached an epiphany, a conclusion that I’ve been resisting for years, but have finally accepted:
A university is a corrupt institution.
First, universities are successful. I have nothing against success per se, but what it takes to succeed in this society is some kind of accommodation with capitalism; you can’t really make it in this world otherwise. A restaurant is a capitalist organization; a soup kitchen is not, and therein you find the greatest distinction between them. Both feed people. One refuses its food to anyone who can not or will not pay; the other offers its food free of charge. One occupies prime real estate and sports swank decor; the other is relegated to the cheapest digs and plainest furnishings. One turns a tidy profit for its owners; the other is dependant on hand outs. One is moral; the other is not.
Likewise with schools. Walk onto a university campus and you will be immediately impressed by the gleaming architecture, the broad walkways, the teeming student life. Yet at what cost? $100 textbooks, multi-thousand-dollar tuitions, credit-card restricted access to journal articles. A university, like a restaurant, has reached an accommodation with capitalism, and it is this: they are selling education.
As obvious as this may sound, it has taken me years to really accept this. I turned first against our laws, then against our economic system, then against our leaders, finally against our system of government, but still I clung to our school system. I applied as a teacher after I had reached a point where I would work for almost no one else. Why? Because they are educators, I told myself, remember the sanctity of knowledge.
They’re educators the way Bill Gates is a programmer.
Don’t get me wrong – I have friends who are university professors, just like I have friends who are restauranteurs, who are businessmen, who are soldiers. If I held everyone I knew to some moral gold standard, there’d be no one left, including myself. Yet, by and large, we can judge large institutions by the values they promote, and a core value of modern higher education is this:
Education is something to be packaged and sold.
Where does the money come from? Anytime you see success in this society, you have to ask: where does the money come from? It’s not a charity, because if so it would look like a homeless shelter, not a 5-star hotel. And the answer is simple: it comes from the students. Those few with the absolute best grades (or the greatest skill pitching a baseball) get scholarships, the rest pay. If they can’t pay now, then there’s always a nice student loan package so they can pay later. After all, what are the students there for? To learn? That’s quaint, but in the real world they’re there to improve their future job prospects. So the students will use their degrees to make more money, some of that money goes to paying off their loans, the university gets to build its new library, everybody is happy. Right?
A friend of mine has a daughter in her first year of college. After a semester of bad grades, he refused to pay for another, so she took out a student loan. I have to wonder – does an 18-year-old really understand how long you have to work for somebody else to pay back $8,000? I know I didn’t. When I think back on my undergraduate years, the first thing that comes to mind is huge waste of my parent’s money.
Let me qualify that, lest you be left with the notion that I advocate a throw-the-kids-out-on-their-own approach to funding college tuition. I had a good time at college and I got a solid undergraduate education in physics. That’s what my parents were paying for, right? Never mind that the library card would have been a lot cheaper than the tuition, because my parents would never have paid for my room and board if it came with nothing more than a library card. After I left college, I then got the full dose of throw-the-kids-out-on-their-own. After a while, I contemplated suicide. Maybe I wouldn’t be here now if my parents hadn’t paid for that extra five years of growing-up time.
But this isn’t about the kids. This about the schools and the teachers. How can they push multi-thousand dollar loan forms in front of teenagers and tell them to sign? How can they outlaw on-line public libraries so that Springer Verlag can cut them in on fat publishing deals? How dare they act like anyone without some paper on the wall is incompetent?
Coming back to my graduate school application, I was really in a moral dilemma. I wasn’t going to pay, but would I accept a T.A.’s position if it was offered? Wouldn’t I be then part of the thing that I despise? At the lowest rung, of course, but still, I’d be taking money from these kids to teach, right? I met my rejection with a number of emotions, but one of them was definitely relief. Like I said, it was a positive experience.
I’ve had it. I won’t pay, and I won’t participate. I won’t let my education become corrupt.