University is Not Good for You | Jake Scott

As a Doctoral Researcher in political theory, some might find it strange that I am writing this piece. I have spent five of my last six years in academia, passing through the typical stages of an undergraduate degree, a Master’s, and finally arriving in the ivory tower (though my own tower is less beautiful – see below) of a PhD; I have also worked in my university union (the Guild of Students), in a role that required me to help undergraduates in times of crisis, typically one of mental wellbeing, but also financial and personal (in the broader sense). I came into contact with innumerable amounts of young people in many different circumstances, ranging from those in genuine danger, to those who needed a helping hand to overcome obstacles they might otherwise not know how to.

Throughout all of this time, I came to a rather simple conclusion: most people do not benefit from university.

Muirhead Tower at the University of Birmingham.
Photo by Elliott Brown on Flickr.

I need to clarify what I mean here by university, because it is not what our parents probably meant, and certainly not their parents. University was a place of knowledge, dedicated to the preservation of a grand heritage of learning and intelligence, careful study of the world and its secrets, and open to those with a genuine desire to benefit from, and enrich, this heritage.

University is not this, any longer. It is a mechanistic bubble, in which learning is proceduralised with endless registers, self-indulgent seminars and modules, tickbox exercises in regurgitating the most diluted and simplistic versions of complicated thought in such a way that it can be packaged and sold to even the least academic among us.

We have, as a result, a self-important studentry who are educated into foolishness, with a half-grasped understanding of their degree content, prepared to venture out into the world and tell those who were not fortunate enough to be taught such tosh where they have been going wrong all of their lives. There are many culprits to this, but the two worst are the Marxists who seized the institutions and transformed them into ones of immanent critique, akin to smashing the concrete between bricks in a wall so it no longer can stand up; and the businessmen who saw the mass marketisation of the ‘university experience’ as a route to enriching themselves further.

It is this phrase – the university experience – that we must fear the most. As the educational value of university has declined (and it has done so rapidly), universities have scrambled to offer non-academic reasons for attending, and (as the logic of marketisation demands) attracting potential consumers to their campuses away from other campuses. Part of this has been intentional, but much of it has been accidental, and in doing so universities and their unions have flogged the dead horses of the latent lifestyle of university students, until they became synonymous: the day-drinking in the local pubs; the over-eating of fast food; the hedonistic consumption of narcotics; and the constant reinforcement of this ‘experience’ with the over-reliance on students’ own incomplete capacities for responsibility.

At a time when our minds are still developing and moulding into who we have the potential to become, so many young people are sold the dream of a total independence – and a subsidised one at that – that is truly damaging to them. In the absence of authority, a problem in which universities must (but indeed, cannot) accept their own complicity, young people are encouraged by the worst possible influences – their peers – and university becomes a place where the guidance of their childhood will be re-told to them as a tyranny of power, of parents dominating their children.

This lack of guidance, however enjoyable it might be in the moment, is not conducive to a good life. In the abdication of the practice of discipline – even as many students are likely missing lectures on delayed gratification, low time preferences or the significance of human law – we fail to cultivate the behaviours that turn our minds away from the self, and the immediate moment, and appreciate the value of things beyond their mere instrumental utility. As a result, university becomes just that – another commodity with value only in its utility – “I need a degree to get a job”.

What is worse, the lack of desire to lead a disciplined life (not even the lack of discipline itself) is extraordinarily damaging to a young person’s mental health. When one considers that many students go to university with no idea of what they want to do with their lives, to the extent that university is seen as a chance to delay that responsibility, this lack of guidance results in a mass of unmoored, almost lumpenproletariat, half-educated graduates who believe – because they are told so – that their university degree entitles them to a greater employment opportunity than they have experienced. But the jarring reality of the ‘real world’ (a phrase that only reinforces the suspended animation-like childhood of ‘the university experience’) is only half the story; all too often I would speak to people who were struggling under the stress of an academic endeavour that they were never mentally prepared to deal with, and the sudden isolation of a young mind from all previous structures of life is akin to a railway train suddenly launching off the end of its tracks. There might be a euphoric moment of abandon before crashing into the reality of the lack of authority.

Not that this is entirely the fault of the student; the university, as I say above, can be said to be culpable. Except, it was never supposed to be: it was, as I say, an institution of learning, that was unashamedly elitist, because it had to be to protect itself, that presumed a certain degree of moral and intellectual maturity in those who attended. Now that the university is merely the continuation of school, so too is the expectation that it must behave like a school, monitoring not merely the education but the behaviour of its students, despite the structures on which it is built never being built to be so.

The result of a university education now, is a rather repugnant one: a devalued degree that is praised less for its content and more for its utility; an undisciplined individual who has grown morally fat on hedonism; and a loathing for the essential need of authority.

Photo Credit.

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