By Danica Savonick
When I was first encouraged to think about why education matters and what it would look like if economic concerns could disappear, I stopped dead in my tracks. It seemed so natural, especially as a graduate student, that education is important. But because it has become common sense that education=good, lack of education=bad, it is perhaps more urgent now than ever to interrogate the fantasies that underscore these equations.
What follows are my compounding thoughts on these issues over the past year. I begin with an excerpt from a quasi-manifesto that articulates what I’m fighting for when I organize, demonstrate, write, think, move, and shout for free education. Next is a portrait of my ideal university. And finally, a brief consideration of my hopes for Education Matters.
Based on my subject-position both within and beyond institutions of “higher” learning, a lot of what I have to say may be misconstrued as insensitive insofar as it lacks a consideration of the racial, class, and gendered obstacles towards education. What I ask for is a momentary suspension of disbelief that these issues could ever disappear, and in return, I promise to continue working for their eradication.
What I’m fighting for
I’m fighting for an opportunity: an opportunity for reorientation, an opportunity to break free from the normative life path I was ushered towards and to enter a place where values are imagined otherwise. In other words, I am fighting for the possibility of me all over again. I am fighting for a cure to boredom, alienation, restlessness, aimlessness, inauthenticity, angst, silence, passivity, and consumption, the silent killers of imagination that foreclose paths towards a better good life. People find all different ways of overcoming these deadening affects but my path was routed through public higher education, which is why I think it is so important. To breakthrough meaninglessness into a world of profound significance is an experience powerful enough to shatter a system of value based on wealth-accumulation and heteronormativity.
I am in graduate school because I love studying literature, and somewhere along the way someone gave me permission to pursue what I love rather than what is expected of me. This world is changed through great teachers teaching provocative texts and class discussions that leave (usually only a handful of) students breathless as they step out of the classroom. Those discussions captivate, obsess, and radically change those who are touched by them. They radiate, reverberate, and alter patterns of human behavior, which changes the shape of history.
I am fighting for those moments where the self gets lost, so enthralled in a project that the time that is always slipping through our fingers is forgotten. I am fighting to hear my idea spoken back to me by someone who made it possible for me to think it in the first place. I am fighting to have something to say to someone who cares. I am fighting to give birth to an idea and then watch it grow into something beautiful, far beyond my control. I am fighting to talk with other people rather than at them.
My ideal university
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney encourage subversive intellectuals to be “in but not of the university” (The University and the Undercommons 101), but what would a university look like that we would want to be both in and of?
If all economic considerations could truly be placed aside, an imaginative leap that is actually really hard to make, my ideal university would be organized around the project of cultivating student curiosity. Students would come to college to learn what it is they are passionate about and would spend their time discovering and proliferating their interests. A fundamental assumption of this vision is that we need to learn how to live a good life, that it is not something inherently given or innate. Students would move within the university from one passion to another at the will of their desires. Lesson #1 would have to be in the art of freedom: how to listen to and learn from desire in the absence of money. Students could stay as long as they wanted and perhaps forever considering there may be, for some students, very little incentive to return to whatever lies beyond this idealized university. Insofar as desire leads to the exploration and generation of knowledge, students would find themselves at home in this university.
In order for this hypothetical university to come to fruition, it would need to employ wonderful teachers with a wide range of skills and knowledges. The criteria for their employment would be their ability to inspire and mentor students, and their willingness to cultivate the intellectual friendships upon which this university depends. The teachers most suited for such a university would be those who understood themselves as sometimes a teacher and sometimes a student. Teachers would foster the conditions under which they could recede into the background as students learn to teach one another. Free from any economic considerations, the only goal of higher education would be for students to find and explore something they are passionate about. Again, an assumption that I am making is that desire is not inherently aligned with the desire for material wealth and that it can be re-oriented through the cultivation of passions. Though I don’t pretend to possess any understanding of human nature, I do think that this university would make the good life a reality for curious and creative individuals who might have ended up elsewhere without this experience. The paradox of my ideal university is that money needs to disappear from the equation in order for love of money to disappear as that which we invest in as the means towards a good life.
This vision of education bound to passion and curiosity would want a university that serves as a place to become intoxicated by the pursuit of knowledge and dwell therein. There would be no material accumulation but human flourishing in abundance. I think what we can glean from such a thought experiment is the understanding that as educators we ought to work with the fundamental assumption that if we do our jobs well enough, students lives can be changed forever. This, in a way, allows us to bracket economic implications and conceive of everything we do as educators as aspiring to orient students on a path towards a good life. As long as we remain on this path we are proving its viability. Though a materialist analysis of education is important, this other piece of the project foregrounds the limits of a purely economic approach to education. Reducing education to solely a means for socioeconomic mobility can eclipse its potential to materialize the good life in other exciting ways.
Final thoughts for now
As the curator of this blog, I’m excited to see what kinds of reactions and responses it elicits. Although I’ve been encouraged by some organizers to treat it as the “means” towards an “end,” I hope that as a space of thought experimentation it skirts the very logic of parsing the world into means and ends. The open-endedness of this endeavor speaks to the uncertainties surrounding the future of education. Hopeful uncertainties, not necessarily uncertainties to shy away from. Uncertainties that demand creativity, thoughtfulness, and attention. As for the future of this blog, which I hope is entwined with the future of education, to quote Conor Tomás Reed: “I want what I cannot yet fathom.”