Are you happy with your college education? Do you feel you’re paying a fair price for it?

I’ve graduated with degrees in both the humanities (Arts & Ideas in the Humanities) and the sciences (cognitive science) and I, for one, feel majorly ripped off.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved many of my courses, especially the ones in the Residential College with Cindy Sowers and all my great English classes. But reflecting on my experience — the work I did, the work my teachers and fellow students did, the other services provided by the University, etc. — I don’t see how one justifies the outrageous cost of tuition. How can the University and the state, understanding the immense societal benefits of education, limit people’s access to it and enslave them with huge debt if they seek it? Upon reflection, I see that if we want to reform higher education so it serves us best as a state and society, then we must start by examining and reforming the ways many of us are currently thinking about higher education.

In our day-to-day lives, we students tend not to experience studying as real work; that is, not like the work we do when we serve tables at a restaurant, or shelve books in a library. Even though everyone involved in higher education would agree (if explicitly asked) that education is real work, we behave as if it’s not.

The ideology of higher education today functions primarily through our actions, not our thinking about our actions. We act as if reading books, listening to lecturers and participating in classroom discussions are luxuries (non-essentials) that we buy for ourselves, like seeing a movie or staying at a hotel. We pay $100,000-plus for these academic activities. And yet, when we think about it, many of us don’t recognize student life as truly worth personally paying exorbitant amounts of money.

Even though much of the real work of learning is collaborative, and hence necessarily communal, economically speaking, we behave as if it’s individualistic — as if we’re buying a really expensive service for ourselves instead of working for the benefit of the community. We’ve been conditioned to experience studying as fundamentally different from other kinds of work — both physical and intellectual — and thus we’ve become psychologically alienated from our labor.

Other workers receive compensation in exchange for their work. It’s presumed that the products they make or the services they provide aren’t for themselves, but for others. And so we think the formula of exchange makes sense.

The only way we wouldn’t apply this same formula to higher education is if we conceived of higher ed as a service we receive, or else as work we do mostly for selfish benefit. But the services of our university — specifically the teaching faculty — demand we reciprocate their work with our own. Unfortunately, education can’t be so easily commodified, and so it doesn’t work well for our predominantly commercial economy.

I think those of us involved in higher education would do well to revisit some of the essays written by some of the early advocates of public education. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an early European advocate of public childhood education, argued based on the principle that higher education ought serve the common good. Since in Rousseau’s philosophy, the socialist-democratic state enacted the will of the people, he thought the state, and not the individual family, ought be in charge of the children’s education. As Rousseau saw it, “Families dissolve but the State remains.”

Rousseau argued this in the face of a bourgeois society that generally preferred to educate its children privately, for the benefit of their individual families. Ironically, one arguing for public higher education today faces a similar dilemma. Today, the country’s upper class sends its children to college primarily for private familial benefits (ensuring a high socioeconomic position for the family moving forward, etc.). Consequently, people of the lower classes also conceive of higher education in this bourgeois, egotistic way. By mistaking the ruling class’s selfish use of higher education as the only use of higher education, we prevent ourselves from conceiving of higher education in all its great pro-social (ahem, socialist) potential — that is, higher education as serving not just the individual student but also his/her community, city, state, society — the common good.

When you’re uneducated (i.e., ignorant), you’re often a liability to those around you (much like the GOP’s denial of climate change makes them a hazard to the rest of the planet —literally). But, when you’re educated, you’re not only not a liability, you’re also positively helpful. It doubly benefits those forced to interact with you for you to know things, like how to form an intelligent opinion about something, or that our country was founded on slave labor, and so on. Really, if higher education is for all, then all ought to be sponsoring you — the individual — and your individual education as a way of saying: “Thank you for learning things! Keep up the good work! We appreciate you!”

The working class, if it were to understand itself as such, would realize that the work of studying is basically the same as the other work it does, and thus it would not tolerate paying to do the work of higher education. We should recognize how our current ideology of education enables us to pay such exuberant amounts of money for work that we really do for one another. If we’re unwilling to revolt against our economic system in general — as perhaps we ought to — then we might instead reasonably demand free intellectual training prior to entering into wage slavery (i.e. professional life). It seems that should be among our minimum demands from our own government.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

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