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Pedagogy Of the Depressed

People express their suspicion of universities in the form of a distinction between universities and what they call the 'real world'. Like so many other academics, I find such conversations intensely frustrating.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #27, September 1996

German and English reserve the word 'free' for things and services which cost nothing. Aside from a critique of political economy, this bears witness to the unfreedom posited in the exchange relationship itself; there is no freedom as long as everything has its price, and in reified society things exempted from the price mechanism exist only as pitiful rudiments. On closer inspection they too are usually found to have their price, and to be handouts with commodities or at least with domination: parks make prisons more endurable to those not in them.
— T.W. Adorno

Because I'm involved in higher education, I periodically find myself in conversations with people who regard universities with suspicion. More often than not, these people express their suspicion in the form of a distinction between universities and what they call the 'real world'. Like so many other academics, I find such conversations intensely frustrating. How dare people imply that the life I live is not 'real'? But the truth is, as unfortunate as the choice of the word "real" may seem, the distinction it is used to draw is meaningful. Arguments that exclude universities from the 'real world' have a great deal to tell us about the way universities are perceived. And the way universities are perceived speaks volumes about their future.

When people distinguish between universities and the 'real world', they don't mean that universities do not exist. Of course, there are many, many people who don't know about universities. But if people know enough about universities to contrast them to something else, they aren't going to doubt their material reality. To say that universities aren't part of the 'real world' is not to say that universities aren't real in the way that people say gods, demons, and the Easter Bunny aren't real. So what do people mean when they speak about this 'real world'?

People who are not intimately acquainted with the day-to-day activities at a university tend to think of them as places where the regular rules of society do not apply. In the modern world, many of these rules are dictated by capitalism. In order to survive, most people need to spend a large portion of their time working for someone else. Sometimes they like their work. A few find it fulfilling. By contrast, students and professors at universities do work of a different order. They do research on material that interests them. They have flexible hours and seem to always have free time when 'normal' people are working. Many undergraduates don't even work for pay. Graduate students and professors get paid to teach, but manage to make a living wage teaching only a few hours a week. Above and beyond all that, the work of universities is not subject to the 'bottom line' in the way that most work is.

The reality of the university is considerably more complex. And, as I will argue later, that reality is undergoing rapid change. But it is true that there is something undeniably different about universities. The distinction between universities and the society in which they exist is easiest to conceive in spatial terms. Universities are a place apart. They have campuses divided from their surroundings by a clearly defined border. Frequently, this border is demarcated by walls. But even when this boundary is largely invisible, it still has legal significance. To a certain extent, the law of the land differs within the territory of a university. There are limits to this difference. It's not as if universities are little nations. But they do obey an internal logic that runs counter to the logic of the surrounding world. They have rules and rituals which that world lacks. At bottom, universities are distinguished from the 'real world' because they are like islands of difference in a homogenous sea.

In an article arguing that "the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than time", social theorist Michel Foucault develops the concept of the heterotopia'. Unlike utopias, which are "fundamentally unreal spaces," heterotopias are "counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found in the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality."

Foucault gives specific examples of the heterotopia. In primitive society they are "privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly, etc." Some of these places have persisted in modern society, such as the boarding school or military service for young men. In contrast to these "crisis heterotopias," Foucault claims that the dominant form of heterotopias today are "heterotopias of deviation," places like "rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons": all are institutions for people excluded from mainstream society.

Although Foucault does not explicitly mention universities, they can be thought of as places that combine aspects of 'crisis heterotopias' and 'heterotopias of deviation'. On the one hand, they have come to replace the societal function formerly filled by military service or boarding school, helping young men and women who are coming of age to break away from their families. On the other hand, they offer shelter, whether temporary or permanent, to people who deviate from social norms. In the process, however, universities could be said to 'institutionalize' these deviants, making them conform to the rules and rituals of the university in exchange for providing them a measure of refuge from the everyday life of 'normal' citizens.

This process of 'institutionalization' has its drawbacks. From a leftist perspective, it threatens to isolate and insulate radicals from parts of society where their presence is sorely needed. But it also helps to protect people who refuse to see the 'real world' as the best of all possible worlds. In an era when the triumph of capitalism and the so-called 'democracy' of the United States are trumpeted all over the globe, it is hard for people who call that triumph into question to survive without the backing of an institution.

Despite their obvious imperfections, universities have been one of the few institutions capable of providing that support. When anti-Communist hysteria was sweeping the United States in the early 1950s, universities were one of the few places where any collective resistance was mounted to the witch-hunts of men like Senator Joseph McCarthy. It is true that in that case and many others the leaders of universities frequently caved in to political pressure. But the distinctive fabric of university life held up to the wear-and-tear. It was the heterotopian aspects of universities that made this possible, the recognition both within and without their walls that they function as counter-sites in which dissent is par for the course.

Today this heterotopian dimension to university life is threatened with extinction, but less from political machinations than economic necessity. There has always been pressure on universities to be better integrated in society. But this pressure has been become particularly intense in the post-war era. In the United States, anti-Communist hysteria was only part of the problem. The GI Bill marked the beginning of an new outlook on higher education, making the university degree a realistic goal for a much larger percentage of the American population. This did a great deal to make the production of knowledge more democratic. But it placed tremendous strain on university resources. It also brought universities under increasing scrutiny, since they were no longer seen as places for the privileged few. They somehow seemed to matter more for society as a whole. Even more importantly, the demands of the Cold War led to new forms of cooperation between government, private industry, and universities. Universities became an essential part of what President Eisenhower called the 'military-industrial complex'.

The New Left in the United States got its start by responding to this state of affairs. The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and revised and ratified by Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, decries the way "huge foundations and other private financial interests shape the under-financed colleges and universities, not only making them more commercial, but less disposed to diagnose society critically, less open to dissent." If we relate this argument to the distinction between universities and the 'real world', it is clear that universities are being faulted for failing to preserve their status as heterotopias.

Somewhat paradoxically, the student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s ended up criticizing universities, not only for being too involved in contemporary politics, but for not being involved enough. To be more precise, they criticized them for being involved in the wrong way. While they called for universities to be more responsive to the needs of students, they did not want them to be responsive to the needs of industry. But in demanding that universities be more relevant to 'real-world' concerns, they increased the pressure on universities to stop being heterotopias.

From our vantage point in the 1990s, it is clear that the student movements were unable to stop collaboration between universities and private-industry. In fact, this collaboration has grown steadily, despite all protests against it. But this ongoing collaboration is only part of the problem. It's not just that companies fund research at universities. Or that more and more university research is undertaken with private-funding in mind. The metamorphosis of the university goes deeper than that.

In recent years, universities have been restructuring themselves so that they function like private-industry. The internal logic of the traditional university is giving way to the logic of the corporation. The rules and rituals that have given universities their distinctive character are being revised or replaced by the rules and rituals that prevail in the 'real world'.

Although this trend reveals itself in all aspects of university life, it is most dramatically exemplified in the decline of the tenure system. For hundreds of years, universities have tested new professors to see if they merit tenure, a more or less permanent position on the faculty. The nature of this test has varied from century to century, from university to university, and from department to department. The criteria used for the test have frequently been obscure. And there have been countless tenure decisions based more on personality than performance. But the sanctity of tenure has rarely been disputed.

Recent developments suggest that this is no longer the case. The remarkable expansion of graduate programs since the 1960s has led to an overproduction of doctorates. At the same time, rising costs have placed universities in a bind. A tenured professor is a major investment. Salary must be matched with benefits. And there's no guarantee once professors have tenure that they will continue to perform as they did before. In this context, the possibility of hiring someone from the pool of qualified candidates on a pay-for-performance basis is hard to discount, especially if it means avoiding the expense of the benefits package tenured faculty expect. This is why more and more university positions are temporary and hold no hope of tenure.

Of course, this is not the first time universities have faced financial pressures. There have been many crises of higher education in which the tenure system could have been abolished. But it wasn't. The difference these days is that the people who run universities are far more open than any of their predecessors to questioning fundamental assumptions about the function of higher education. Tenure survived for so long because there was reasonable consensus about its value; or because, at a deeper level, there was a sense of tradition that made consensus unnecessary.

Times have changed. In today's universities, nothing is sacred. The cutting-edge in university management is a 'transvaluation of values' that would like to consign tradition to the dustbin of history. Serious reformers with serious influence are rearranging universities according to a model borrowed from business. Popular programs of study like business administration or computer science are to be rewarded with a greater percentage of the budget. Less popular ones like art history or foreign languages are meant to suffer as a consequence. If a department wants to win a larger share of the budget, it will have to increase its market share. The logic behind such proposals is clear. It's the logic that prevails in the 'real world', the logic of the capitalist marketplace

It's unlikely that universities will cease to exist any time soon. The sphere of religion offers a useful comparison. The rise of mass media posed a tremendous threat to organized religion. Tradition-minded communities that had supported religious institutions through thick and thin were suddenly inundated with words and pictures of a brave new world. Along with other technological developments, this transformation led to the fragmentation of these communities. Young women and men left their homes to seek this world out. Even those who stayed behind saw their lives irrevocably changed.

But as it turned out, this did not mean the demise of religion. On the contrary, as recent social movements suggest, religion is on the upswing, particularly in the mass-mediated United States. This reversal of fortune was no accident. Religious leaders realized that the images on their TV screens were really the writing on the wall. So they made a concerted effort to turn technological innovations to their advantage. They decided to counter the mass-media through a mass-media of their own.

Ever since the days of Karl Marx, leftists have been arguing that there is a 'totalizing logic of capital'. The idea is that as capitalism penetrates into more and more of the world's sheltered places, it has an insidious effect on whatever it comes in contact with. It may not outwardly transform the appearance of these places, but rearranges what we can think of as their 'molecular structure' so that they no longer function as they once did. After their run-in with capitalism, these places become like the figures in Invasion of the Body Snatchers who seem to be normal human beings, but have actually become hosts for an alien lifeform.

Perhaps The Fly provides a more appropriate metaphor. Religious movements are more than a Trojan horse for capitalism. Indeed, capitalism has also become a Trojan horse for religion. The resurgence of religion in contemporary society is the result of a process of hybridization. The new religious movements are like the half-man, half-fly creature of the science-fiction films. The totalizing logic of capital hasn't replaced the traditional logic of religion, so much as fuse with it.

It's almost as if the people who run universities are taking their cue from these religious leaders. They try to prevent the demise of universities by making them function more and more like corporations in the 'real world'. The question is whether it's worth it. Does it matter that the university is becoming less and less distinct from the 'real world' in which it is located?

It depends how you look at it. If you're a leftist like myself, the answer is complex. The fact that universities look more and more like every other sort of institution helps to prove our claim that capitalism is a standardizing force. We're tempted to shout "I told you so" to all the people who have dismissed our theories . But the sort of satisfaction this would bring is not conducive to the political changes we seek. It's more than a little perverse to take pleasure in finding one's dire predictions confirmed.

The Port Huron Statement concludes with a message of hope. Although earlier in the text it has been highly critical of universities, it counterbalances that dark vision with a recognition of their potential. Because the university is "located in a permanent position of social influence;" because it is "the central institution for organizing, evaluating, and transmitting knowledge" in "an unbelievably complicated world;" because of its importance for the military-industrial complex; and because it is "the only mainstream institution open to individuals of nearly any viewpoint," it is a place for instigating social change. At least, that's the way it seemed in 1962.

As subsequent student movements have demonstrated, this was a prophetic analysis of the post-war university. Whether it will hold true for the university of the future is another matter. As the proliferation of business schools, adult education programs, and technical courses attests, universities are rapidly becoming more relevant to the 'real world'. These are the 'growth industries' of the contemporary university. There's nothing wrong with teaching people how to succeed in business. It's not as if we can pretend the workplace doesn't exist. On the other hand, we shouldn't be forced to think that the workplace is the only thing that exists.

Universities have to remain places "open to individuals of nearly any viewpoint," places where it's alright to disagree, places where it's alright to be deviant. As many commentators have noted, public space is rapidly disappearing. We live at a time when most of the places that seem public actually aren't: malls, sports arenas, movie theaters. Of course, universities also aren't public space in the sense that street or city parks are. But they perform many of the same functions as public space, and many others besides. And we have to do everything we can to make sure they continue to perform them. We must recognize that it is not necessarily a bad thing that universities are detached from the real world. In fact, this is one of the few things saving us from the tyranny of a 'real world' in which reality is a function of the market. Society needs heterotopias, no matter how costly they are to preserve. And we need universities to retain their heterotopian dimension.

Charlie Bertsch is head of UC-Berkeley's graduate-student government. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English, currently writing a dissertation entitled "Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture." He can be contacted at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1996 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.