The university is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in today’s vineyard, the military-industrial complex. They’ve got to be processed in the most efficient way to see to it that they have the fewest dissenting opinions, that they have just those characteristics which are wholly incompatible with being an intellectual. This is a real internal psychological contradiction. People have to suppress the very questions which reading books raises.
— Mario Savio, interview with Jack Fincher, “The University Has Become a Factory,” Life magazine, February 26, 1965.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Mario Savio and thousands of other students at the University of California, Berkeley, created the Free Speech Movement as a response to the university administration’s banning of political speech on campus. The FSM, as it came to be known, was one of the first major sparks in a widespread student rebellion that lasted throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. While the Vietnam War was the central focus of this activism, it’s important to note that the New Left began political organizing on campus before Vietnam evolved into the era’s overarching issue. Protesting institutional racism, nuclear proliferation, and McCarthyism, among many other things, significant numbers of college students throughout the 1950s and early 1960s were expressing anger and frustration at the society they were inheriting.
As Savio and many other figures of the New Left pointed out, throughout the postwar period, the university was becoming more and more intimately tied to the private interests that were largely responsible, in their eyes, for the enormous social problems then facing the nation. This connection compromised the university, a traditional refuge from the crass materialism and profit motive that increasingly formed the backbone of the U.S. economy. Savio’s worry, that “[p]eople have to suppress the very questions which reading books raises” sums up the New Left’s attitude toward education and foreshadows the wider attack on the humanities that would follow the student insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s.
The decades since the 1960s have seen the progressive decline of humanities programs across all of higher education, as the purpose of college has been adjusted, in the wider culture, to a much more straightforward consumer transaction. Pay for a degree, get a job. I mean, come on, what else would you go to college for? The New Left’s warning, that elite forces were infiltrating and dismantling the last institutional threat to their ideological dominance, the last place where formal critiques of capitalism could be created and considered, seems almost corny and self-evident from today’s perspective. The horrors of what’s been happening in academia have only been accelerated and needn’t be repeated here. But in case you need a reminder, here’s an excellent blog entry called “How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps” that delivers exactly what the title promises.
What does all this mean for the philosophical fate of the nation? While it’s arrogant to assume that colleges and universities are the only places capable of producing critical thinkers and philosophical innovators, it’s certainly disturbing to imagine a society without such an institutionalized thinking factory. As the focus of higher education shifts more completely into the mechanized, dollar-for-dollar experience that Savio, Herbert Marcuse, C.Wright Mills, and others warned of, will we see a visible decline in the society’s capacity for thinking? Will our imaginations be stunted? Is Idiocracy actually a documentary?
Sorry if this is cynical. I really don’t mean to always be so critical, to ask so many questions, to search for so many hidden connections. It’s probably just my humanities education talking.