Losing the University

The university was never meant to be a place for liberation and social justice, but from its start was built for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male elites. Rod Ferguson reminds us in his work We Demand that the fact that many of us associate universities with something else – with diversity, with the possibility for envisionining anticapitalist politics, with social justice movements – is in many ways the product of student struggles. Universities themselves have resisted these associations. Ferguson recalls for us that in 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. Ten days later, police shot approximately 400 bullets into a women’s dorm at Jackson State University, killing two students. The reaction to these murders by dozens of college presidents was to “petition their state legislators not to curtail but to augment police powers on their campuses”(15-16).

The point is that I know the university is not nor has it ever been this romantic perfect place. I remind myself of that fact constantly. I was never planning on making a life here in academia in the first place; I didn’t feel like it was my life’s mission to teach undergraduate students and I have always felt like there are much better and more direct ways to make social change than education. This makes it easier to remember that the university has always been flawed, it wasn’t meant for anyone other than straight white male elites, and if some of the rest of us have managed to increasingly arrive in the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years, it has been for the most part, an anomaly. And it has been the fruits of our struggle. They didn’t want us here in the past and they don’t want us here now. They have never wanted us here. Ferguson says

For university and political elites, then, the social categories ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ were never meant to inspire appreciation for the student movements, movements that might shed light on social inequalities and recommendations for transcending them. “Tolerance” and “diversity” were instead ways of saying “Society must be defended”—that is, protected from the student, who was understood to be a criminal from the start. (2017: 23)

In other words, it is not necessarily a tragedy to lose this place because there are and have always been other ways of doing this. Marginalized communities have always found ways to educate themselves, and those ways, being designed by and for liberation, have more liberatory potential than any institution which has always fought to keep us out.

But knowing all of that doesn’t seem to be helping me feel less sad right now. It doesn’t seem to be helping me much at all. The fact is that I feel I’ve benefitted enormously from my time in and around universities and it seems like many of my most marginalized students have done so as well. While these other forms of learning and education, free schools and free universities and popular educational models which I’ve been a part of, can be much more liberatory in the end, I’m afraid they will still be much more limited in their reach than the good ol’ public university in its heyday was. (Because was is really starting to seem like the operative concept here.)

Ironically, I mean, I wouldn’t even know about free schools without my exposure to the university… that’s certainly not true for everybody. And it needn’t be true. But I think it points to why I feel hope lacking in this moment. I feel a light going out. And sure, that light was really dysfunctional in the first place but it was granting wide access and possibility and acting as a funnel, at least for many students, to something much better, to much more critical ideas and action. How many of us were radicalized in the university? Of course there are other sites, other methods, other ways, but undeniably, this sucks.

The loss of access to critical thinking, to liberal arts, to social justice oriented classes throughout Wisconsin (and probably eventually elsewhere), is without a doubt, a loss of something, for some folks, who were in fact benefitting. Even if we do succeed in creating liberatory alternatives, it’s hard for me to imagine they will have the same reach and impact as the public university in its heyday. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I just need to dream bigger. I hope so. Perhaps I just need to get started on the experiment.

Black and white screenprinted poster of a soldier holding a sign that says "I just wanted to go to college." Text at bottom of poster says "End the poverty draft. Stop the war economy."

Image created by Eli Wright at Justseeds Collective for the new Poor People’s Campaign.

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