Campus Unrest Is Really About Power, Not Justice

Everyone knows the probably-apocryphal story about Gandhi, when asked what he thought about Western Civilization, responding that it “would be a good idea.” Could the same be said of the “radical” university? At least as far back as living memory takes us, the university campus has occupied a unique role in American culture as the prime locus of societal upheaval.

“Tenured radicals” preach the gospel of skepticism towards middle class values while coddled students, just barely out from under their parents’ wing, rebel against a world they don’t yet understand. In the Sixties this might have meant occupying (or bombing) ROTC buildings. Now we’re more likely to see signs delineating safe spaces alongside guest speakers being shouted down. But one senses, along with the decades-long continuity of self-aggrandizement and posturing, that perhaps this campus culture of revolt taken as a whole isn’t so radical after all. Perhaps professors and students both are complicit in defending a sort of cultural status quo. Perhaps they’re the unwitting vanguard of a banal and repressive cultural hegemony.

For all the iconoclastic destruction of symbolic representations of the past, such as Yale changing the name of its residential dorms or Princeton students demanding the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from various buildings, the question always remains: why stop there? Isn’t the school itself—its organizational structure as much as its architecture—tainted by its legacy? Indeed, aren’t most university campuses memorials writ large for oppressors past? Why not demand an entirely new school? Or no school at all?

The most interesting aspect of campus faux radicalism isn’t the charge that they’ve “gone too far” but interpreting what it means that they stop where they do. Objects are destroyed. Demands are leveled. But the institution itself rolls along, usually metastasizing. What this suggests is that the drama of these protests unfolds along a predetermined course and the ends it serves are radical in name only. In tying the logic of the campus protest so tightly to the university system itself—making demands that only the university can answer to, usually granting the administration with even more power in order to arbitrate the problems of the day and meet the demands of the students—what this campus unrests serves to actually do is expand the authority and power of the university itself.

Surprisingly or not, we can look to Friedrich Nietzsche, the often-unacknowledged predecessor of so many post-Foucaltean Leftists, to better understand our own situation. He faced a similar one in his own time. The issue for Nietzsche could be boiled down to the difference between Bildung and Wissenschaft, both words difficult to translate into English but with the approximate meaning of full character formation versus bureaucratized and hyper-specialized scholarship , respectively. The Prussian education system of Nietzsche’s time had decayed from a bold institutional experiment which invigorated German culture into a sort of administrative cargo cult where scholars and students merely went through the motions.

The result was a short-sightedness, “slavery to the present.” In his Anti-Education, a story based around a series of fictionalized lectures written when Nietzsche himself was a young teacher, we have Nietzsche describing a situation not all too dissimilar from our own: a metastasizing educational bureaucracy deadening the truly radical promise of classical education with its banal touch. And what’s more, Nietzsche observes that the very “educational crises” caused in large part by the institutionalization of learning is articulated in such a way by the university system that it appears as if more of the same is the only answer. He writes:

Given all this, who could possibly doubt that the exercise stamps each rising generation with everything that ails our literary and artistic public sphere: the hasty overproduction driven by self-regard; the shameful churning out of books; the complete lack of style; immature formulations that miserably sprawl or lack character altogether; the loss of any aesthetic canon; the reveling in anarchy and chaos . . . .

You might suspect that Nietzsche had been writing about our own educational system. In order to further explore this suspicion, it’s useful to try to imagine what a truly radical university might look like.

One could do worse than turn to Ivan Illich, the radical priest and author whose ideas and practical suggestions for Western society deserve more attention. In his book Deschooling Society, we’re given a truly radical vision of education in that it courageously follows its own intellectual premise to their own logical ends. In defending education, Illich sees schools themselves as the main hindrance to learning. Why? Because “school reserves instruction to those whose every step in learning fits previous approved measures of control.” Much as Nietzsche suspected about his own time, Illich claims that instead of being a source of Bildung, the modern American educational system has instead become a process of administrative control via certification. He writes that learning isn’t promoted by schools because

educators insist on packaging instruction with certification. Learning and the assignment of social roles are melted into schooling. Yet to learn means to acquire a new skill or insight while promotion depends on an opinion which others have formed. Learning frequently is the result of instruction, but selection for a role or category in the job market increasingly depends on mere length of attendance.

Illich concludes that the most reasonable course of action in the defense of education is to replace schools with independent educational communities. In other words, he calls for the abolition of the university system itself—something a bit more radical than shouting down a guest a speaker or demanding the removal of artwork.

It’s strange that so many radicals who might otherwise call for the destruction of institutions like prison or political borders stop short of the educational administrative state. It again prompts the question: why stop here? Why make the exception of building an ideological firewall around educational institutions while almost all others get slated for demolition?

The question, of course, almost answers itself. At least since Rousseau, the left has sought social and political power through the forced and routinized education of the young. It’s a power grab. Even worse, it works so well that it’s ideologically captured the agents of its implementation. Illich writes that “Many self-styled revolutionaries are victims of schools. They see even ‘liberation’ as the product of institutional process. Only liberating oneself from school will dispel such illusions. The discovery that most learning requires no teaching can be neither manipulated nor planned.”

If we took Illich seriously, we might understand that a truly radical university would be one which abolished itself. After all, if learning can happen, and can actually happen more effectively—and to the consternation of doctrinaire educators, more unpredictably—outside of school, why defend the system we have? Someone who is truly radical wouldn’t seek out the university at all but cultivate a learning community outside of it.

Real world examples of learning communities outside of institutionalized education aren’t difficult to come by. In fact, as Illich points out, most learning has always happened outside of schools—especially in America, especially now. His own example comes from 1956, when there arose from the New York Archdiocese a need to teach Spanish to a large number of social workers and ministers very quickly. An open call went out over the radio in Harlem. Illich describes the results:

Next day some two hundred teenagers lined up outside of [Gerry Morris’] office, and he selected four dozen of them—many of them high school dropouts. He trained them in the use of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Spanish manual, designed for use by linguists with graduate training, and within a week his teachers were on their own—each in charge of four New Yorkers who wanted to speak the language. Within six months the mission was accomplished. Cardinal Spellman could claim that he had 127 parishes in which at least three staff members could communicate in Spanish. No school program could have matched these results.

Examples of de-institutionalized education abound, from various homeschooling projects to collective online learning to local book clubs. Each of these, in certain ways, is more radical than even the most dramatically Leftist campus just by virtue of having already detangled learning itself from the larger institutional concerns of academia—and even more by leaving space for individual discovery of the love of learning.

Would radical education be a good idea? Perhaps in some ways it would. What does seem obvious enough though, is that the campus turmoil so representative of the spirit of the university in the Anglophone world doesn’t represent anything particularly radical or particularly new. As thinkers like Nietzsche and Illich have taught us, the colorful spirit of campus revolt is really in many ways the means through which institutionalized education tightens its stranglehold on the faux-revolutionary imagination. Perhaps the real worry, as Illich writes, is that the hidebound logic of bureaucratic education slips its bounds and tries to foist its banalities on larger culture:

At some time in the last two generations a commitment to therapy triumphed in American culture, and teachers came to be regarded as the therapists whose ministrations all men need, if they wish to enjoy the equality and freedom with which, according to the Constitution, they are born. Now the teacher-therapists go on to propose life-long educational treatment as the next step.

An education, no doubt, standardized and certified by the university-educational complex, complete with therapeutic sensitivity training and top notch customer service. But one that is therefore entirely dictated by the social control mechanisms of an elite governing class with more fealty to conveying doctrinaire ideology than actually getting down to the often radical business of educating. It would seem, in fact, that their institutionalized control mechanisms would, as Nietzsche suggested, completely defang the essentially wild nature of learning while also diluting its seriousness. Perhaps at this point the most radical course of action a student could take would be to stop demanding things of the university itself; perhaps the most subversive act is to learn without the authoritarian “assistance” of the typical modern university.