Hey DG readers, this semester I’ll be writing a study abroad column. Personal rundown: junior, History major, South Jersey born and bred, anarchist, and fledgling bike enthusiast.
I’m writing this for a few reasons. A) I want to give myself deadlines, and be sure that I’m actually writing down my thoughts about being somewhere else. B) I’ve been thinking a lot over the summer about what it means to claim “student” as a political identity. Following the student movements in Quebec and Mexico as well as looking back at the legacy of student movements in our own country has made me realize: 1) that it’s probably worth thinking about what it means to be in an ivory tower for (at least) four years and 2) that my debt at the end of all of this has more to it than just a degree.
I chose to go to London because I haven’t learned another language besides English, because I wanted to go abroad in the fall, and because I wanted to do some sort of activist/organizing work. I didn’t have the time or energy last semester to figure out where I could go, what I could do, and what it would mean to do it in a totally new cultural context. I’d been to the UK before on family vacations, and realized that it presented perhaps the lowest cultural barriers of almost anywhere I could choose to go. So London it is.
Starting in October, I’ll be studying at SOAS, an acronym I’ve painfully explained many times as the School of Oriental and African Studies. The school’s name (surprise, surprise) stems from its days as a training center for colonial administrators. Young Englishmen would come to SOAS in the high days of the Empire for instruction in language, anthropology, and colonial bureaucracy. Until recently, SOAS, a constituent college of the University of London, was staffed largely by former administrators in Burma, India, and other British colonies.
Now, the colonizers have been mostly cleared out, and virtually all school communications refer only to the acromyn-ized name, kind of like how Russia Today calls itself RT, or how Kentucky Fried Chicken has officially been shortened to KFC. Like all universities, SOAS is selling a product. It’s rebranded itself as one its nation’s most progressive institutions of higher learning, thanks largely to legacies of campus activism. Sound familiar, Swarthmore?
Having yet to step foot on campus, I don’t know a thing about what actual politics are like at SOAS. I don’t know how the administration responds to student activists’ demands, what their branding strategies are, or how explicitly they claim a commitment to social justice in their admissions materials. Before going further, I want to clarify that I’m not a complete cynic, on either Swarthmore or SOAS. Cynicism isn’t useful. Despite my frustrations with Swarthmore, I did choose to come here, and for good reasons I have chosen to stay. Suffocating as it can be, Swat has taught me a lot over the past 2 years and introduced me to an amazing community of genuine, passionate and intelligent people. It’s also introduced me to the nature of any large, ultimately returns-seeking institutions with interests and agendas that lie far outside of social responsibility. For ALL of this, I am thankful.
These two years at Swarthmore have given me a lot of thoughts and feelings about universities, and I hope that my study abroad experience will help to develop them. In a blatant attempt to spark a DG comment thread, but more so to foreground what I hope to be a semester-long discussion of intersections between institutions and activism, I want to lay out a few of my basic assumptions about colleges and universities. These will probably be running themes throughout the column, so I won’t expand too much on them here. Note: these are my assumptions. Some of them are shared by others, but they are not intended to be seen as hard and fast truths. These assumptions are drawn from my experience at Swarthmore, and will be inevitably reflective of that experience. I can’t speak for folks at large state schools or at institutions outside the US. I also can’t speak for people who aren’t me, who haven’t shared my experience as either a Swarthmore student or as Kate Aronoff and all of her identities. I can speak only for myself, from myself. So without further ado:
1) In an ideal world, universities will not exist. Hierarchical learning structures, privileged enclaves of dominant culture, and the gigantic pools of capital that are college endowments won’t exist after the revolution. Period.
2) Universities think and operate first and foremost as institutions. As personable and friendly as Swarthmore’s bureaucracy is, Swarthmore and all universities are ultimately still bureaucratic institutions because all (physical) institutions are bureaucratic. There are legions of high, mid, and low-level administrators working tirelessly to preserve the interests of the institution. What are these interests, you ask? Stasis. Institutions are existentially interested in preserving what made them institutions in the first place, a stance that tends to put them at odds with social change that challenges dominant culture. While universities have made advances for social causes in the past, it’s never been unprompted.
3) Universities are actively oppressive forces. This is more apparent in some ways than others. For one, there are plenty of people whom colleges reject because they don’t meet culturally determined standards of achievement like good grades, SAT tests, and hours upon hours of volunteer service. There’s also the issue of gentrification. Ever been to University City? A big part of University City used to be part of West Philly, and wasn’t inhabited by Penn and Temple students and buildings. Universities can also be really shitty employers to the people who live near them. Not last or least, they’re big, hulking financial actors; our $1.6 billion is invested in some of the most openly destructive companies operating today.
Basically, we can’t turn universities into institutions of social good. We can and SHOULD mitigate their worst effects by fighting gentrification, bad investments, and other ills, but so long as they stand, universities will always be destructive.
It is true that University abolition in our day and age might not be the most useful campaign an activist can work on. That’s because, despite all their ills, the university shouldn’t be disposed of in a vacuum; the culture has to change first. Colleges and universities do, sometimes, do good things, and–more so–produce amazingly thoughtful people. So for now, I’m much more interested in dismantling bigger systems of oppression than Swarthmore.