Usually, when I begin to question college—its reason for existence, my role within it, etc.—I think about “Accepted” (the teen comedy film that came out a few years ago). If you haven’t happened to catch one of its repeated airings on various cable networks, it’s a movie that essentially mocks the entire higher education system.
Frustrated with the college application process, a few high school seniors decide to forge acceptance from a fake university in order to please their parents. Eventually, their schemes unintentionally lead to the creation of an entirely student-run university, which is refurbished out of an abandoned mental institution.
While their university becomes subject to a lawsuit by an accredited university, the Hollywood ending reassures us with a victory for the students, who eventually gain official recognition by the board of education.
Although it may seem like a far-fetched pipe dream, the students in the film display a sense of unified, collective agency that is hard to imagine ever formulating on this campus.
However, even though I criticize it, I am fully aware that achieving our potential for collective agency is probably the most challenging struggle we can ever face as students. It is a struggle that must be fought not only within the university’s parameters but outside, in the greater societal framework as well.
In May 1968, French students were at the forefront of uprisings that brought university and factory operations to a complete standstill. Groups of student revolutionaries, who espoused ideals of the Situationist International movement, agitated the French population into staging one of the largest general strikes ever recorded in history. Inspired by Marxist ideology, the students were fiercely critical of late-stage capitalism and the alienation it caused between human relationships.
Two years prior to the strike, students at the University of Strasbourg stirred up a great deal of controversy when they published a pamphlet titled “On the Poverty of Student Life.”
The students were expelled after printing and distributing about 10,000 copies of the pamphlet, which aggressively promoted Situationist philosophies and called upon students to reclaim their humanity from the mind-numbing depths of the prevailing capitalist system.
Here is an excerpt from the pamphlet, translated from French, which outlines the students’ views on their predetermined roles:
“Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation.”
This past Saturday, I attended a discussion group right here on the campus Quad. Organized as part of the new “Occupy the Classroom” learning collective series, a group of about 30 students met to discuss the topic at hand: our university education within the context of race, class and gender/sexuality.
Before you jump into skeptical critiques that usually turn up when the “Occupy” label is placed on anything, you should realize that everything we discussed deeply affects all of us as lifelong patrons of institutionalized education.
Ultimately, our discussions generated a few common themes.
I noticed that a recurring theme was the existence of a hierarchical and highly individualized structure, which promotes education as a product to be consumed as efficiently as possible. Furthermore, I sensed a deeper frustration with this consumption narrative that seems to dominate all facets of our university education.
Just as the Situationists declared in 1966, being a student today still seems to resemble taking part in a rehearsal for our future role as passive consumers in the market. They observed, “The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and his future role.”
So, it really comes down to a choice we must make as students. We can simply participate in the charade, reading off our well-memorized lines. Or, we can decide to use our collective agency to subvert the play itself and fulfill our truest desires as we struggle to reclaim our human dignity.
Aliabadi is a freshman in SPA.