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Studying beyond education for a world beyond capitalism

  • October 17, 2019

Education & Emancipation

As we kill the idea that studying can only take place in institutions of higher education, we can bring to life new modes of learning and remaking the world together.

On June 13, 2016, Corey Menafee decided the window had to go. During his work break, the thirty-eight-year-old African-American service worker at Yale University’s Calhoun College dining hall used a broomstick to smash a stained-glass window that depicted enslaved people of African descent. The building was named after the slaveholder and colonialist John C. Calhoun.

After he was arrested and charged with a felony, Menafee resigned from Yale and gave several interviews with local and national news outlets. The nationwide outcry against Yale pressured them to drop the charges and to rehire him. But they did so only on the condition of a gag provision, preventing Menafee from making any further statements to the public about his action and the administrative response.

The Yale administration sought to bury the controversy that Menafee’s act, and his speaking about it, had brought into the public spotlight. Yale’s vice president of communications claimed the reason for the gag provision was “so that everyone can now move on.”

That same year, feminist scholar, Sara Ahmed, also snapped at her university.

After building up frustration over years, in 2016 she publicly called out academia’s sexism, especially the sexual harassment of students by professors, portending the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Then she resigned. In a blog post titled “Resignation is a Feminist Issue,” she said:

Snapping is often a matter of timing. A snap can feel like a moment. But snap is a moment with a history: a history can be the accumulated effect of what you have come up against. And just think: you have to do more, the more you do not get through. … To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. So the action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash. Well maybe then: I am willing to be rash.

The typical stories about racism and sexism in higher education portray them as “ugly histories” from a buried past that one has to dig up. By contrast, Ahmed’s and Menafee’s snaps show that these histories continue to be lived in the present.

When I was in grad school, I, too, snapped at the university. I decided to write my dissertation, and eventually a book, Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World, as a way to investigate why universities have created misery for myself and so many others. I also explored what we can do collectively to dismantle the shitty features of universities while building alternatives that keep the parts that we enjoy.

“Willing to be rash”

My book takes the baton from Ahmed and Menafee, and from all those who are “willing to be rash,” as Ahmed put it. When I was in graduate school, the academic life felt contradictory: we faced hyper-competitive pressure to climb up the professional ladder while the number of secure jobs dwindled. Discussion of mental illness, and of cracking under the pressure to compete, was stigmatized. When a fellow graduate student committed suicide, I snapped. I decided to use my dissertation, and later my book, as opportunities to study the object of my snapping, the university, to “spill its history.”

After my friend died, I devoted my energies to organizing with others who felt marginalized at the University of Minnesota, including grad student unionization, staff labor organizing, and creating an alternative, free, anarchistic university.

When I tried to understand these struggles in the context of higher education nationally and globally, I found an impasse from trying to grapple simultaneously with all of the complex controversies raised by the many different but intersecting struggles.

Student and faculty movements in the US have organized against increased tuition, debt, corporatization and adjunctification. The movements of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and solidarity with Palestine and Standing Rock on campuses have shown that racism, sexism and colonialism are not merely a buried past but histories that continue to be lived in the present.

The impasse around higher education in the US can be engaged in a variety of ways, but most authors of recent books on higher education politics respond to the impasse as a “crisis.” They treat the impasse as a moral and analytical question to be resolved through rational persuasion.

Narratives of “crisis” imply a moral distinction between past and future, posing the question, “where did we go wrong?” These narratives are populated with characters from a romantic story of education: a heroic individual ascending education’s levels, overcoming challenges along the way.

Education and alternative modes of study

The education romance is part of what I call “an epistemology of educated ignorance” — ways of knowing that suppress critical questions about education that would challenge one’s own position in the dominant system. The education romance provides an escape from engaging with the complex controversies in the impasse.

As an antidote, I contend that education is one possible mode of study among many alternatives. The elements of this mode of study include:

  • An imagined vertical trajectory of individualized development framed through a romantic narrative;
  • Students separated from the means of studying, having their relations to the means of studying mediated by teachers and administrators;
  • An ideology of “education” for preparing people to participate in governance;
  • A zero-point epistemology with knowledge seen as produced from a zero-point floating above the world rather than by particular bodies in particular places;
  • A pedagogical mode of accounting with an affective economy of credits and debts that can take the form of graded exams;
  • Dichotomous figures of educational waste and value, including the “dropout” and “graduate.”

On this view, we can see the impasse of higher education as rooted in political questions about conflicts between alternative modes of world-making that are co-constituted with certain modes of study. In the course of political struggles, education has been presented as if it is the best and only mode of study.

Because education is romanticized in this way, the possibilities of alternative modes of study have become almost unthinkable.

Yet, alternatives have existed before and concurrently with education. For example, consider Indigenous modes of study, such as at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning that promotes the studying in intimate interrelationship with the land and in ways that are bound up with resurgences of Indigenous modes of worldmaking. This is theorized in the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson with her writing on “land as pedagogy.”

The university has been a terrain for conflict between these different modes of study and world-making. This was seen with struggles for the creation of departments of Black Studies, Indigenous Studies and Feminist Studies, among other radical interdisciplinary fields. If we see the university as a concentration of the means and resources for studying, then it is the terrain of struggle for access to, and control of, these means by different movements with alternative modes of world-making and study.

Instrumentalizing the “school dropout crisis”

Taking my impetus from critiques of US universities as colonial-capitalist institutions in need of decolonization, my book offers critical genealogies that trace the origins of ideas about education that the British settlers brought with them to the colonies. Education’s elements emerged contingently from political struggles, particularly as reactions to people’s struggles for liberation that were bound up with alternative modes of study and world-making. To give an example of these critical genealogies that highlights the supplementary relations of “crisis” and “education” narratives, I start with “the school dropout crisis.”

In the early 1950s US, for the first time a majority of Americans completed their secondary education. But at that time, hardly anybody talked about “school dropouts” as a national problem. I found that the political origins of the “dropout problem” narrative can be found in the early 1960s with US with racial liberalism, which was promoted by the Ford Foundation and the National Education Association with their “Project: School Dropouts.”

Liberal-capitalists perceived threats from both the right — with anti-communist witch hunts — and the left — with communism, anti-colonial movements and civil rights movements calling for desegregation — as well as from migrants who presented world-making projects alternative to liberal capitalism. In reaction, liberal-capitalists created “colorblind” institutions that addressed urban problems, including the dropout.

The Dropout Project was part of the Ford Foundation’s broader “Gray Areas” programs, which focused on domestic migration to so-called “gray areas” between cities and suburbs. They avoided tackling racism by, instead, focusing on the deracialized figure of “the migrant,” which lumped together Black, Brown, and poor white migrants. Migrants were denigrated as culturally deprived.

The Dropout Project was in tune with racial liberalism, as opposed to alternative framings of urban problems, such as critiques of white supremacy, segregation and inequality from the perspectives of the civil rights and anti-colonial movements.

Domestic migration was framed as a “crisis” from the perspective of liberal-capitalists. Migrants desired resources for studying, living and working together in ways that exceeded the limits of liberal capitalism. They drew attention to segregations, inequalities and discriminations, thereby putting into question the value scales of the liberal-capitalist order.

The dropout narrative, then, serves as a tool of crisis management — to re-affirm the liberal-capitalist order of value. Narratives around the dropout include imagined vertical life trajectories tied with a certain emotional economy. Imagining life as a dropout produces shame and fear, while imagining rising up as a graduate produces pride.

This emotional economy constructs and stabilizes the boundaries of key entities in the liberal-capitalist imaginary: the “individual,” “community” and “nation.” The dropout problematic creates a terrain of intervention for liberal-capitalist governance that is framed as an individualized process of disposal and salvaging.

The Ford Foundation’s dropout project dovetailed in the 1960s with their promotion of an end to free tuition and commodifying of higher education. With the rise of liberal and neoliberal versions of multiculturalism from the 1970s through 1990s, the “culturally deprived” framing of dropouts was replaced by non-cultural descriptions, such as “educationally disadvantaged” and “at risk.”

But the “dropout crisis” narrative retains its effect of focusing on governance of relations of individual-school-community-and-family while diverting attention from structural racism.

The “school dropout crisis” narrative exemplifies key elements of the education-based mode of study: a vertical imaginary of possible life trajectories, a terrain of governance for expert-led crisis management, an emotional economy of shame, pride, fear and anxiety and dichotomous figures of waste and value.

In exploring the origins of these foundational elements of the education-based mode of study, I found that they emerged as ruling-class reactions to threats from alternative modes of study and world-making.

Origins of education

During the emergence of capitalism in 13th to 16th century Lower Germany, communities of women in the cities created new modes of life and spirituality entwined with new modes of study. One spiritual convert group called the beguines who lived in beguinages developed a horizontalist, proto-feminist mode of study. In opposition to the beguines, other convert groups developed more hierarchical modes.

The Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life split their schools into ascending levels and narrated an ideology of “spiritual ascent” for an individualized self. This gave their schoolmasters means for managing a crisis of disorder that they faced in the context of the Black plague with many more students crowding their schools.

The institution of school levels spread throughout Europe as part of primitive accumulation, or the creation of the preconditions for capitalism, along with enclosures, the colonial dispossession of land, plundering of colonized peoples’ labor and resources, and patriarchal repression of rebellious women.

To elaborate on education’s key role in the rise of capitalism, we must attend to how the ruling classes used education in reaction to resistances in 16th and 17th century England. The term “education” emerged in the 1530s when people’s rebellions pushed King Henry VIII’s regime into a crisis of legitimacy. The King’s advisors were accused of being illegitimate because they were not of noble birth.

They found a narrative defense by appealing to “education” — saying that they had been educated in contrast with their critics — and they included a cast of characters in this narrative with a constellation of binary, individualized figures, particularly, “idle” people with “bad education” as opposed to “hard-working” people with “good education.”

Many of our romanticized myths about the goodness of education come from classical liberal political theorists’ writings on education. A key example of these theorists was John Locke, who framed the Others of modernity — the poor, women, slaves and Natives — in opposition to the figure of the ”self” formed through education.

Locke saw the “self” as constructed through experiences and he prescribed education for shaping these experiences in ways conducive for self-governance. The teacher should manage the student’s self-formation with a household-based emotional economy — including shame, pride, fear and anxiety — that creates a system of credits and debts, what Miranda Joseph calls a “mode of accounting.”

This gives teachers educational tools for suppressing subversive collaborations across class, gender, age and race. This becomes institutionalized in schools in the early 19th century with graded exams.

Kill the romance of education

Through these critical histories of the education-based mode of study, I hope to unsettle our common sense view of its necessity and to open our horizons to alternatives. But how can we practice alternative modes of study in the present? To explore this question, I share experiences and reflections from an anarchistic free university.

I draw on several years of militant co-research with an alternative study organization called the Experimental College of the Twin Cities (EXCO). The original Experimental College was founded at San Francisco State College in 1966. By appropriating money and spaces from the university for students to organize their own courses without tuition or grades, it allowed the Black Student Union there to create and experiment with the first Black Studies curriculum. This stoked their demand for a Black Studies Department, a major motivation for the Third World Students Strike that shut down the campus for five months in 1968-1969.

The Experimental College of the Twin Cities emerged forty years later, in 2006, out of students’ struggles at Macalester College against a shift to a more elitist admissions policy. Seeing resonances between their movement and the struggles that my friends and I had been involved in at the University of Minnesota, we decided to found a new chapter of EXCO at the U of M, as a free, open, egalitarian project for supporting modes of study alternative to education.

We used student groups to appropriate funds and spaces from the U of M and Macalester for free, open, self-organized classes with no grades, building an alternative university within the cracks of higher education.

EXCO’s participants developed new ways of thinking and relating that enacted alternatives to the education-based mode of study, intertwined with alternatives to liberal-capitalist modes of subject-formation and governance. For example, courses on “Radical Pedagogy” and anarchist reading groups engaged participants in anarchist modes of study, and courses on “Dakota Decolonization” and “Unsettling Minnesota” got non-Indigenous people to reckon with settler colonialism and to engage with Indigenous people’s modes of worldmaking and study.

Beyond highlighting the potentials of alternative study projects like EXCO, my concept of “modes of study” can help us see their limits. For example, participants in EXCO courses often brought with them their ingrained habits from the education-based mode of study, such as relying on hierarchical expertise and expecting to find motivation from grades. Also, EXCO’s organizers grappled with tensions from trying to hold together both elements of EXCO’s mission: its engagement with university struggles and its creation of a radical alternative.

In attempting to deal with these controversies often, we organizers often ended up reproducing some of the technocratic, patriarchal features of the education system within EXCO’s own approach. By falling back on an epistemology of educated ignorance and “crisis” management, we short-circuited the process of continual studying of EXCO’s tensions.

These problems reduced EXCO’s capacities and led to its end in 2016. Considering this rise and fall of EXCO highlights limits and possibilities for projects with, what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have called, “undercommons” relations to universities, stealing resources for supporting alternative modes of study.

Studying in universities does not have to take the form of reified expertise within the education-based mode. Instead, academics and non-academic movement participants can collaborate in continually unsettling flows of teaching, knowledge, study, and organizing. As we kill the romance of education, we can bring to life new modes of studying and remaking the world together.

As a way to open our horizons to alternative modes of study and world-making, consider the call for “abolitionist university studies” and an “abolition university.”

These are projects that I have been developing collectively with Abbie Boggs, Nick Mitchell and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, among others, particularly through our co-written essay, “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” and a linked convergence called “Whose Crisis? Whose University? Abolitionist Study in and beyond Global Higher Education.”

Please check out our invitation, share your questions with us, and consider writing a response. We mean it when we say that this is an invitation to join us in studying, organizing, and building relationships for making universities, and making worlds, against and beyond capitalism.

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Eli Meyerhoff

Eli Meyerhoff is a visiting scholar in Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and program coordinator of the Social Movements Lab. He earned a PhD in political science from the University of Minnesota. His latest book is Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

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