Day-to-day College Life Under Capitalism

This is the text of a speech I gave for a panel titled “The University under Capitalism,” featuring Noah Charles, Moira Geary, N S, and myself. You can listen to the whole panel on We Are Many. Obviously the text is not identical to the talk.

Noah has talked about how capitalism influences our institutions, and Moira has talked about how our institutions affect us. I’m going to talk about some of the ways capitalism affects us most directly and most personally, that is, in our day-to-day lives.

There’s a story about two college-aged fishes who were swimming around a river, doing collegiate things, when they run into an older fish, maybe a professor. So the old fish asks them: “How’s the water today?” The two younger fishes pause, look at each other, and then ask: “What water?”

This story illustrates how the most pervasive aspects of our lives are often invisible to us. We get so used to them that we stopped looking, the same way we don’t constantly notice the ground below us as we walk around campus. This is why some people can claim to be “color-blind” while living in a racist society, and why some people can believe that sexism doesn’t exist, even as the Obama administration spends taxpayer money on trying to keep Plan B off of women’s hands. I claim that something like this is true of the ways capitalism and capitalist ideologies affect our day-to-day lives in college.

It used to be the case that people saw universities as something so important for democracy that they needed to be shielded from the perverse influence of the market. This quickly started to change after the student unrest of the ’60s and ’70s. Roger Freeman, a key educational adviser to Nixon, probably put it more explicitly than anyone:

“We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.”

After this shift, universities became fair game for capitalism, and this has intensified with the neoliberal version of capitalism that’s still with us today.

I won’t be able to talk about all the ways this affects us, but I will focus on a couple: Academic stress and social isolation.

It’s become a sort of truism that college students are stressed out all the time. We’ve even internalized that that’s how it should be. I’ve sometimes found myself walking around Chicago, doing something fun, and thought to myself: “Damn, why am I so relaxed? Am I doing something wrong?” After about a minute of confusion, I would finally realize it was the middle of the summer.

It hasn’t always been that way. Many studies have shown dramatic increases in stress levels over the past couple of decades. In 2011, a study of college freshmen showed that the class of 2014 broke all records for stressful freshman years (sorry juniors). We often talk about the lack of mental health services on campus, and of course I agree that it’s necessary to improve what we have, but we should also be talking about why there’s been such a spike in the need for these services to begin with.

Part of the story certainly has to do with what Noah was talking about: increase in student debt, terrible job prospects, having to balance study with jobs, worries about the next rent payment. These are indeed some of the greatest causes of stress in college students.

But the increase in stress levels is not reducible to a bad economy. Some of the largest causes of stress that students report are the daily things that make life hard: lack of sleep, weird eating hours, and a heavy academic workload.

The typical position on these things is that this is just the way things are: If you want to get a good job, you have to be good, and if you want to be good, you have do a lot of work, especially while you’re in college.

Implicit in this view is that college is primarily a way to get a good job, and that a large academic workload is the best way to become “good.” While it might be true that a lot of academic work is the best way to gain the kinds of skills corporate recruiters are looking for, I think seeing college primarily as a capital investment on a future CEO position is severely misguided.

College should also be about becoming active citizens, forming relationships, and developing our own views of the world. While classes can help with some of this, much of the work can only be done in our leisure time, conversing and working with the many other intelligent, committed students on this campus. An increased academic workload may have a positive effect on the university’s achievement measures, but these measures inevitably reflect priorities mediated by their ideology, and cannot possibly account for the unmeasurable effects of a late-night discussion of politics.

The lack of contact we have with our fellow students brings me to social isolation. While it is difficult to measure how much students care about each other, I will focus on one study that I found especially shocking. The study asked a random selection of college students from across the country questions like the following:

“When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.”

“Other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal.”

They were asked to rank how well these sentences describe them from 1 to 5. Between 2000 and 2010, empathetic responses decreased 40%. I don’t know if students have been reading too much Ayn Rand or what, but what I know is that this is pretty horrifying, especially for those of us who still care about justice.

The university seems to recognize that this is a problem. Every year since I got here they’ve been pushing their ideals of “Community,” “One Northwestern,” and anything that makes it look like students here care about one another. They’ve also placed an emphasis in improving the athletic program, as if that would make us care about each other. In a telling recent incident, when students were trying to decide how to improve our campus, Patricia Telles-Irvin said she wanted us to build a statue of Willie the Wildcat.

What they advocate is an empty, abstract unity over the fact that we happen to go to the same school. And it goes directly against the way this university is structured: How many of you, after receiving a dissatisfying grade on a midterm, found yourselves wondering how all your classmates did? I know I have. When our success is measured in comparison with everyone else, it can be kind of hard to wish your fellow students well.

We’re made to compete against each other as if that were good in itself, even in fields where that makes absolutely no sense. Most scientists, for example, will go through their entire academic careers without writing a single paper by themselves. Why are we expected to work alone in preparation for working with other people?

At least part of the reason has to do with ideology. In the individualist dogma of capitalism, competition is seen as the only thing that drives humans to be better, and therefore it’s assumed that students will only put effort into their work if they have to beat everyone else. Anyone who has attended the events put together this week will know that this is far from the truth. Many of us have put more effort into organizing than in our academic work, and we were certainly not trying to one-up each other while doing it.

Not to mention that all of these problems become much worse when we think of the way they affect oppressed groups on campus. Some of you may have been at the event on micro-aggressions. These are the subtle insults and demeaning interactions that people of color, women, and any oppressed minority can suffer. They’re exactly the kinds of everyday pressures that can make students stress, and make it harder to foster some sense of solidarity in the student body. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to trust her fellow students if she’s afraid the might throw eggs and shout slurs at her because of her race. And none of these problems can be properly understood without understanding how they’re embedded in the capitalist system. What is racism without the need for cheap Black and Latino labor, or coolies to build our railroads? What is sexism without the commodification of women’s bodies?

Of course, I have only given a brief sketch of a very complicated subject. To hear a more detailed account of how mental health issues affect college students, you should go to tomorrow’s event on the topic put together by Active Minds. We’ve had some events on sexism and racism this week, but we could have whole weeks of events on how these forms of oppression affect students, and we’d only be able to dip our toes on the extent of the problem.

I think the main take-away from here should be that it is not a coincidence that we’re having all these issues, and it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to be stressed out all the time, we don’t need to be constantly competing against each other, and we don’t need to put up with racism and sexism. We have made progress on all these fronts before through collective action, as Niabi will tell you in a second. I think the unity that is created through this collective striving for a better world is much more meaningful than ten thousand Willie the Wildcat statues.