The current Occupy Movement has captured people’s imagination and refocused the national discussion on issues of economic injustice, social stratification, and corruptions of American democracy. Contrary to what some people might think, the Occupy Movement is not composed solely of “young, idealistic college kids.” People of many different ages, ethnicities, and ideological persuasions are involved. But there is no doubt that many — but surely not all — Occupy participants attend, will attend, or have attended college. This raises an interesting question: What role does higher education play in the formation of the Occupy Movement and/or social movements in general? I want to specifically address current and future students: Should your college education help you organize and participate in social movements? Should your college experience help you become an agent of social change? What is and what can be the relationship between higher education and attempts to change the world?
At first glance there appears to be no inherent connection between a college education and social justice. Universities are organized around different areas of study, many of which have nothing to do with social movements. While sociology and political science departments might offer courses in gender inequities and/or transnational global movements, math and science do not. Other departments — like business and marketing — might actually resist or ignore such social/political issues. While some schools do cater to issues of justice, democracy, and political transformation, this is neither common nor obligatory. College is about education rather than radical social change.
This is not to ignore the rich history of campus activism: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the whole anti-Vietnam War era; the Latin American solidarity work and the Campus Outreach Opportunity League of the 1980s; the United Students Against Sweatshops that began in 1997; the Campus Antiwar Network and the New SDS of the mid-2000s; California’s statewide protests against cuts to education in 2009 and 2010; and the current call to Occupy Colleges (OccupyColleges.org).
I wholeheartedly endorse these actions and believe that the college campus can and should be a site of political contestation. But there is also the issue of how individual students approach their education. Is college about earning a higher paycheck (usually at the expense of someone else) or about making the world a better place for everyone? These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but the first is no doubt the status quo of contemporary America.1 But it does not have to be like this; you do not have to reduce your college education to a future (and unguaranteed) paycheck. You are free to reappropriate — that is, occupy — your education in order to learn about, participate in, and organize movements for social justice. Just as the Occupy Movement is reclaiming and transforming the democratic nature of this country, so too can you reclaim and transform the nature of your education.
At the most basic level, a college education improves your ability to read, write, speak, research, and analyze. Once these skills of self-empowerment are learned, they are not forgotten and can be used whenever and however you wish. These skills are also necessary for creating more effective social movements. Reading complex social analyses, writing narratives and journalistic accounts, speaking in public and to the media, researching important political information, and analyzing everything from poverty rates to presidential discourse are necessary practices of every social movement. Approaching your college education in this way improves your ability to bring about fundamental social change.
At a more complex level, a college education can provide in-depth knowledge about specific topics pertinent to social change. Such topics might include but are not limited to: the history of American imperialism; systemic inequalities of capitalism; the racial disparities in the criminal justice system; the relationship between mental illness and homelessness; the different causes and challenges of urban and rural poverty; alternative healthcare practices; environmental science and issues of climate change; sustainability and globalization; nutrition, obesity, and the politics of the corporate food industry; the pros and cons of humanitarian aid; international diplomacy, conflict resolution, and the possibilities of peace; the social/political significance of literature, film, theater, and the arts; the biographies of Emma Goldman, Gandhi, and Dr. King; philosophies of government and theories of dissent; the social construction of race, gender, and sexuality; language and political consciousness; and even the communicative strategies of Greenpeace, ACT-UP, and the Zapatistas. The purpose is to develop a body of knowledge that resists and overturns rather than accepts and perpetuates modern-day oppressions and inequalities. This may not be the formal mission statement of the average college, but there is nothing holding you back from constructing a program of study that helps you change the world.
The social life of college is also an opportunity for developing your capacity for social change. Most students are in their late teens and early twenties and moving away from home for the first time. You are on your own with minimal supervision. This is a time of freedom, exploration, and experimentation. You have the chance to meet new friends of different backgrounds, persuasions, and orientations, which enriches your inner mind and worldly experience. You have opportunities to attend on-campus meetings, public talks, and film screenings, which increase your knowledge about political, intellectual, and artistic controversies. And you engage in late-night dorm room discussions about numerous topics and issues, which expose you to new relationships and modes of interaction. The overall experience is nothing less than a laboratory for personal growth, social development, and political practice.
This approach to college is a far cry from the standard “college equals a future pay check.” Such a reductive and instrumental approach is understandable since everyone wants to live a financially comfortable life. But that reduction is neither inherent nor essential. Instead, it’s a product of neoliberalism, which is a “new laissez faire economic system” based on the deregulation of free markets and the privatization of wealth. Neoliberalism subordinates government control to the interests of private profit. The government — rather than regulating the market — becomes an extension of market activity with the sole purpose of increasing capitalist competition. Neoliberalism provides tax breaks for the rich, reduces spending on social programs and welfare, expands corporate control, and eradicates labor rights, environmental protections, drug and food regulations, and even national law. The basic purpose is to allow private interests to own and control every aspect of the human, social, and natural world. Things like food, water, farmland, forests, healthcare, prisons, militaries, political processes, mass media, and, in this case, education are targets of neoliberal control.2
Neoliberalism helps explain many of America’s social ills. More than 46 million Americans live in poverty. Nearly 50 million have no healthcare insurance. Somewhere between 24 and 26 million are either unemployed or underemployed. More than one million homes were foreclosed in 2010 while approximately 3.5 million people are homeless. And this country’s total student loan debt is over one trillion dollars with the overall college tuition inflation increasing by more than 115% since the mid-1980s.3 But yet banks get billion-dollar bailouts, CEOs get million-dollar bonuses, multinational corporations pay lower tax rates than working-class citizens, and Barack Obama, the president of hope and change, has already received more than $15 million in campaign contributions from the financial and banking industries.
We should also look at the strange correlation between America’s educational advancement and its increased economic inequality. The percentage of high school graduates attending college rose from 42 percent in 1970 to 70 percent in 2009.4 The economic worth of a college degree also increased during this time period. In 1980 the weekly salary of college graduates was 40 percent higher than that of high school graduates. By 1997 that gap had risen to 73 percent.5 These trends could be seen as a progressive shift toward a more educated and prosperous society. But economic inequality actually increased over these years. In 1979, the top 1 percent of Americans owned 20.5 percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 99 percent owned 79.5 percent.6 By 2007, the top 1 percent increased its share to 34.6 percent while the bottom 99 percent declined to 65.4 percent. In 1980, the pay ratio between the average American CEO and the average American worker was 40 to 1. As of 2009, the ratio was 263 to 1, which is actually lower than recent years due to the economic recession.7 The ratio peaked in 2000 when it was 500 to 1. These statistics demonstrate that higher education helps some individuals move upward at the expense of other individuals — i.e., college contributes to both upward mobility and wider social stratification. The smarter we get, the more unequal we become. Such private rather than collective gain is part and parcel of America’s current socio-economic juncture.
This situation no doubt affects one’s approach to college education. I have been teaching college students for almost fourteen years and it is obvious to me that students implicitly (and even explicitly) know that they are targets of private enterprise. They intuitively understand that they are seen as consumers rather than as students. Students then internalize this discourse and decide that they, too, want something in return: they want a degree and future paycheck in exchange for their time and money. The logic of economic transaction thus trumps the experience and value of an education. Not everyone adheres to this logic. But it is increasingly common.
This scenario is upsetting, but not hopeless. You — the students — can reclaim your educational experience as an opportunity to change not just the problems of education, but the problems of society. Enroll in particular college programs, sign up for politically-minded courses, befriend willing and helpful professors, meet like-minded peers, join and/or start campus organizations, and coordinate campaigns for social justice. The point is to place social change rather than private profit at the center of your education. This is obviously a privileged position. Not everyone can afford to approach their education in this way. Many people cannot even afford to attend college, period. But this is the very problem that needs to be challenged. Occupying your education can help you change such problems and lay groundwork for creating a better world. Education should not be a privilege or even a right. It should be a way of life, and that life should be a political force for the common good. Occupy your education.
3 For sources on student debt and college tuition, see the following: Gordon H. Wadsworth, “Skyrocketing College Costs,” InflationData.com (October 19, 2011); Marcus Baram, “Not Just Wall Street: Protesters Should Target Colleges Over Student Debt, Tuition Increases,” Huffington Post (November 11, 2011); and Dennis Cauchon, “Student Loans Outstanding Will Exceed $1 Trillion this Year,” USA Today (October 25, 2011).
4 Bureau of Labor Statistics. “College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2009 High School Graduates.” April 27, 2010.
5 Author Levine. “The Remaking of the American University.” Innovative Higher Education 25.4 (Summer, 2001): 253-267.
7 Sarah Anderson, et al. “Executive Excess 2010: CEO Compensation and the Great Recession.” The Institute for Policy Studies.
Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. Visit his website for more information: <www.jasondelgandio.com>.