The Right to the University

Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.
– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve certainly never made a secret of the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy the process of getting an education. Wait, let me be clearer:

I hated school. I really fucking hated it. I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t a popular kid, I was bullied for being whiny and bookish and weird. Gym class was, of course, the biggest terror: partially because I was terrible at most sports, partially because I was unable to brush off pain like a manly man, and most of all because I simply didn’t give a shit and resented being forced to jump about like a fucking monkey. I’m not talking about some mild dislike; just thinking about it makes me well up with anger. The idea that I, a conscious, thinking being, interested in literature and film and all kinds of things, had no choice but to endure the physical discomfort and social humiliation of “physical exercise” while getting shouted at by people who were only doing this job because they were too fucking dumb or lazy to do something better, was nothing short of enraging.

But the rest of school wasn’t much better. I enjoyed the occasional literary or philosophical discussion in English class, and once we had a history teacher who almost didn’t suck for a few months; I also had a very good Greek teacher in the last years of school. But I still hated most classes. I hated being there. I hated having to memorize things. I thoroughly hated homework, and didn’t do any at all for the last three years of school or so. Just thinking about homework made me feel like a vampire was sucking out my soul.

I wasn’t a bad student. I was actually one of the best. Somewhere around seventh or eighth grade (I think) my grades plummeted; a teacher made the mistake of seating me next to the class clown in hopes of getting him to calm down, which had exactly the opposite effect than intended. But that was good, that was excellent. Even though my failing grades and growing inability to keep up were a source of major stress at home, I became more relaxed as a person. Before that I’d been… I don’t know, overly earnest. I was Anakin Skywalker in Episode I. (It is not unrealistic at all for a child like that to turn to the dark side, let me tell you.) It must’ve been quite annoying.

My grades eventually got better again, especially after I received some help from a private tutor. Turns out my terrible maths grades had more to do with the teachers than with me. Within less than six months I went from getting the next-to-worst possible grade in a test (1 point out of 15, yes the German grading system is bizarre) to the best. The teacher was quite confounded. My physics grades never got better, alas. I understood all the concepts involved – hell, I even read up on physics-related matters in my spare time – but figuring out when the falling sausage will impale the koala that’s been thrown at a 35° angle is something my brain just refuses to do. Same with chemistry, which is kind of a shame, because otherwise I would have seriously considered studying biology.

I was weird in school. Oh, I was certainly smart. And in a sense I was more adult than most, because I had absolutely no interest in performing adultness. I didn’t want to be cool. I just wanted school to be over. I wanted to be free to do my own thing. Phenotypically speaking I was antisocial, but really it was more tension than anything else. I just needed it to be over, and anything that made time stretch out was bad. But in retrospect I realize that I pretty much screwed up my last few years in Greece by not being relaxed enough. I was getting along better with people than before, and maybe if I’d made an effort to engage more, to get less outraged at petty matters, to just have some fun… those years could’ve been pretty nice. But all I could think of was how to get it all to pass as quickly as possible. I felt like a prisoner. That I knew I’d be leaving the country soon and would never be able to come back and live there made it all doubly surreal.

On the last day of school, after our equivalent of the prom, everyone went to some kind of club to celebrate. Apparently it all got very teary and emotional. I was one of three people who just went home. Not to make a point or because I hated people – though I do hate nightclubs; I prefer taverns or pubs or, frankly, quiet beaches – but because I just didn’t care. It was over. I was free. What I felt was not sadness at the end of an era, but an overwhelming sense of relief.

It is very telling, I think, that to this day I have only one really frightening recurring nightmare: that I’ve forgotten about some obscure regulation which means everyone has to go back to school for a few more years. I’ve dreamt of alien invasions and being hunted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that’s one of the few dreams that genuinely upsets me. (Another recurring nightmare is that I’m on stage and have forgotten or never got to rehearse the lines, a nightmare that apparently quite a lot of people who’ve done theatre share. It’s not scary, just frustrating. The only other one I can think of is the one where I’m in Greece but I’m leaving on the next day and I haven’t managed to get enough out of my stay. That’s the only nightmare where I don’t feel any happier after I wake up.)

Then there was university. University was a mixed experience, really. I went in excited, ready to plunge into the depths of English literature. I’d been reading the classics of my own volition (my plane read on the way to Germany was Paradise Lost, which strikes me as profoundly ironic) and was looking forward to being challenged and gaining a wider as well as deeper understanding of the history of the written word. Instead I got hit with Freud, Adorno, and other proponents of unadulterated bollocks. Classes on culture and history consisted of long sermons about the evils of white privileged men, which substituted obfuscatory terminology and name-dropping for logical argument or historical analysis. Books were read in psychoanalytical terms, even if doing so contradicted half the book’s content; I tried in vain to argue that denying the reality of the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw actually robs the story of meaning. That was my first encounter with identity politics, even though I’m not sure I had a name for it back then – a much older female student (in retrospect, almost certainly someone who’d failed at their previous job and decided to become a teacher because “children are easy” and “I have a natural empathy for children”) complained to the teacher about me because I used arguments from the text and that meant I was an arrogant sexist. Ironically, her own (unsupported and unsupportable) interpretation of the text reduced the female protagonist to a self-deluded, sexually repressed cypher instead of the strong, complex human being Henry James actually wrote.

University was characterized by waves of enthusiasm, or at least attempted enthusiasm, followed by waves of frustration and disappointment. I didn’t want to become an academic, but I (correctly) thought that exposure to literature and criticism would help me become a better writer. I was willing to engage intellectually to the greatest degree. I was willing to read, to expand my horizons. Instead I got homework, which I resented no less than I had done in school. At one point I had to do a “library quiz” – apparently the university’s idea of teaching people how to use the library. I actually dropped out of the course and almost out of university itself just over that. I just couldn’t believe it. A quiz? Are you fucking kidding me? How about you just rewrite the library’s search engine so it doesn’t totally suck and leave me the fuck alone with your library quiz. What is this, third grade? Are we gonna sing a song and paint a picture of de Saussure now? For fuck’s sake.

There were good things, too. Though I’d gone to university expecting to focus on the classics, I was quickly drawn to postcolonial studies, where I ended up spending the majority of my time. Here I encountered many interesting works of fiction and non-fiction that really did expand my horizons. And while I also encountered a lot of postmodernist nonsense, I gained a variety of intellectual tools that remain helpful in analyzing the world, even from a Marxist perspective. I was particularly lucky to be taught by a couple of notable academics: Frank Schulze-Engler, who exposed me to many ideas about the transcultural, as well as to many excellent novels from Canada, Africa and the Caribbean, and Bernd Peyer, who exposed me to a great deal of Native American/American Indian fiction and nonfiction, the history of the Chicano Movement, and other topics that remain very important to me.

The knowledge I gained from such classes helped to expand and consolidate my understanding of the struggle for equality.

But I never finished my studies, to the intense frustration of my parents (who had spent a great deal of money to support me, money that was not easy to come by in Greece). Why? I know more about postcolonial studies than some academics, I’m a good academic writer, pretty much every paper I wrote got excellent grades… well, actually, there you have it. Exams. Homework. All that brain-numbing tedious shit that I absolutely didn’t need to do. If they’d just let me write my PhD, I wouldn’t have had a problem. A PhD is real work, not homework. I’d rather write a thousand pages that mean something than three pages that don’t.

OK, maybe I would’ve had a problem. I was intensely irritated by the degree to which the humanities have been taken over by wank disguised as sophistry disguised as serious thought. It’s not even real sophistry, it’s just pure relativistic shite that serves no purpose except to make sure no-one ever actually thinks about anything. Even in postcolonial studies, a huge number of academics do nothing but publish utterly meaningless bollocks with no intellectual validity whatsoever. No, using the word “epistemological” does not give your argument weight. More syllables does not mean more logic. Theory is not an artform. Fuck off and die.

I worked in the English Department’s Writing Center for years. I was there from the day it was founded. And you know, I met some of my best friends there. I have fond memories of endless conversation with Ivo about music and poetry and politics and games (that continue to this day), poking affectionate fun at Cornelia’s Southern heritage (I still do, y’all), and collapsing in a heap of laughter with Linda (which doesn’t happen often enough, sadly). Good people. The work itself… well. The project was the brainchild of an American lecturer, who left after a year or so, utterly baffled by the low standards of the university and the impossibility of getting daycare for one’s children. She was a very nice person, highly motivated in a somewhat oddly American way, but what she was trying to do didn’t really gel with how Goethe University worked. And to make matters worse, none of the students actually understood that there was a difference between language skills and writing skills. Still, we struggled bravely, and accomplished a few good things – like forcing lecturers to standardize their essay requirements, so people didn’t end up getting terrible grades just for doing what they’d been taught the previous semester. We taught people not only the basics of academic writing, but in some cases even how to think for themselves. It’s amazing how hard it is for people to shake the idea, popular in German schools, that “you shouldn’t write your opinion.” We spent months working with some people. We worked some difficult cases, too. People who burst into tears. People who would fail their exams if they didn’t acquire a lot of skills in just a few weeks. People who had to be kindly told that their language skills were so sub-par they couldn’t write a single correct sentence. I, being the veteran, was assigned the cases other people were scared of, like the angry older woman (another teacher-to-be) who wouldn’t listen to advice, which made us wonder why the hell she came to the Writing Center in the first place.

But despite all the fun, there were some things that just kept wearing me down. Seminars I would get excited about would turn out to be terrible. We did a seminar about reading Tolkien from a postcolonial perspective and the lecturer turned up dressed as an elf. At the end of that seminar I was scolded for intimidating newbies by using precise arguments. They’d based their presentation on reading the internet instead of the books, so 90% of what they presented was cobbled together from various role-playing games that weren’t even related to The Lord of the Rings. I was also accused of “writing too much like an academic even though you’re just a student.” Yeah.

In the end, though, it was the homework that did me in. I just couldn’t face writing twenty pages of pointless drivel just to get a grade. I got seriously depressed just thinking about it. And by depressed I mean depressed, not slightly miffed.

So, given all these experiences and more (I haven’t even mentioned my brief time in Theatre/Film/Media Studies, which would make an excellent Python sketch), I understand why a lot of people criticize universities. There’s a lot that is wrong, some of it deeply. Culturally, politically, socially – universities could be improved in a lot of ways. But I’m very, very wary of the tendency in certain sections of the identitarian left to reject higher education per se, i.e. “universities are run by privileged white men” or “universities only exist to brainwash people into supporting the system/patriarchy/whatever” (that the entire terminology  used by these individuals comes from middle-class academics working at universities is tragically ironic; the “radical” part of the internet sounds exactly like a cultural studies class). Because it’s just not that simple – not even remotely.

To a large degree this anti-university discourse originates in the sociopolitical conditions of the United States, where economic rights were never as advanced as in other parts of the world and where what few rights existed eroded much longer ago. Britain, too, has a tendency for posh universities that few working-class people attend; but even those institutions are not purely the bastions of the ruling order that some imagine, or they wouldn’t have been quite so savagely attacked by people like Margaret Thatcher.

But even if universities in the US and UK were as profoundly dedicated to capitalism as people claim they are, that does not make these attacks on the university system as a concept any less problematic. There are two simple reasons:

1) The US and the UK are not the world.

2) Education matters, and the university system is good at providing an education.

Right now, universities and university students are playing an important part in the struggle against capitalism. Because, you see, in other parts of the world – which are no less important – the idea that free education is a right hasn’t been lost. People take to the streets to fight for the right to a higher education. After all, a proper university education is considered a must in the job world – not because people in Europe are rich, but because until recently their political systems were considerably more social. Universities are centres of political organizing and dissent. A great many of the people you see being beaten by riot police on the streets of Greece, Spain or Egypt are students. And you are not doing them a favour by saying that universities don’t matter, or that universities should be rejected. Portraying universities as a lifestyle choice rather than as a fundamental right plays directly into the hands of those who want to turn universities into exclusive clubs for the financial elite.

Universities are centres of learning, and learning is a required tool in the struggle for systemic change. Even the stuff you don’t agree with is useful – as we taught people in the Writing Center, dismantling your opponent’s position can be a useful way of illustrating yours. Yes, schools and universities are flawed. The solution is to fix them, not to give up our claim on them.

Let’s leave aside the revolutionary stuff for a moment, though. And let’s leave aside the temperamental artistic bollocks for a moment, too. Most people go to university to learn stuff and get a decent job so they can live a happy life. There’s nothing wrong with that. They don’t go there with visions of altering society or having a spiritual communion with Milton, and why should they? The essentially elitist lifestyle-based contempt some people express for “normal people” is deeply reactionary, even if it is presented in radical-sounding terminology. Not everyone has some grand vision, and they shouldn’t be required to – forcing people to conform to our quasi-spiritual cultural desires is not what the struggle for equality is about; if anything, this kind of thinking is an individualist distraction from meaningful mass action.

In the end, you’ve got to admit that people like me are kind of ludicrous. No, I don’t think I should live in a society that makes me suffer. But a lot of the problems I faced at university are silly compared to the real struggles going on in the world. Yeah, I didn’t want to do my homework. Maybe I think I’m smarter than other people. Maybe I even am. Who gives a shit? My problems with the tediousness of writing essays are a fucking joke compared to the millions of people struggling to get an education, fighting to keep the educational system accessible to all. Oh, the role academia had to play in allowing things to get where they are, that we can talk about. But the problems of an artistically-minded misfit who gets depressed about homework? For fuck’s sake, I’m the guy who’ll take an hour of walking over five minutes of waiting for the bus. You shouldn’t reject education because of people like that. The struggle for democratic rights is significantly more important than the struggle for my personal identity. Yes, I’d love to live in a world without gym classes and library quizzes. But giving up the right to education in the name of ideological purity is another step towards a world in which we don’t have libraries for quizzes to be written about, or classes for me to whine about.

The universities are ours. Let’s reclaim them.