C. Wright Mills ended his 1960 “Letter to the New Left” with the ominous phrase, “We are beginning to move again.” In his letter, Mills posited that the “young intelligentsia” — basically, college kids — was the new catalyzing force for social change in an increasingly political world. As the sixties wore on, this theory more or less came to fruition, with young people in America staging large, meaningful protests that we still talk about today.
You, as an astute Ivy League-educated reader, can probably sense where this is going: the columnist starts with a quotation from a sixties intellectual, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of an 800-word sob story lamenting the sad state of campus activism. After badmouthing Facebook and drawing a comparison between the Straight Takeover-era Ho Plaza and the current Acapella Pusher-era Ho Plaza, the columnist concludes the piece with something self-referencing and punchy, something like, “As Mills would write if he were still alive, ‘We are beginning to stand still again.’”
By now, since I just explicitly mentioned campus activism in a snarky, self-conscious paragraph, you (astute as ever) probably realize that I have no intention of writing a column about political apathy and the like.
But if I were to actually write such a column, I’d probably argue that the conventional wisdom — that college campuses ought to be more politically active — rests on some shaky assumptions.
For one, the campus activism that was so prevalent in the 1960s took place in campus environments that were very different from what we see today. It is the very nature of the university that helped cultivate such activism.
Ideally, a university functions as both an active distributor of education and a location for the discussion and breeding of ideas. In addition, the education that the university distributes, ideally, is knowledge-centric and concept-based. So when you pair an environment that is both creating and shaping ideas with idealistic young students, it makes fertile ground for activism.
I assume that universities in the sixties were much closer to the idealized places that I described above. However, this assumption is probably wrong, and I am probably guilty of mutilating history for the sake of my argument, a crime that columnists tend to commit with great regularity.
However, while I cannot claim that 1960s Cornell resembled the idealized university, I can say that the nature and function of 2011 Cornell is categorically different from the university I described two paragraphs ago.
The function of today’s Cornell is not to distribute knowledge or be a physical forum for ideas; it is to get the highest number of graduates the highest paying jobs available.
Cornell is a vocational school in every sense of the word. The careers may be more prestigious, well-paid and impressive than those taught as traditional vocational schools, but the function of Cornell is exactly the same as a trade school that teaches students to fix cars or a beauty school that teaches students cosmetology. The “education” that happens in Ithaca is strictly designed to teach students a sustainable trade — whether that trade be investment banking, consulting or hotel administration.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. With such a large percentage of Americans out of work, it’s almost ignorant to criticize an institution for dedicating itself to the employment of its graduates. But we cannot simultaneously be a vocational school in practice yet think of ourselves as “an institution of higher learning.”
The idea that students attend Cornell to learn is a delusion. If a student stumbles upon an interesting idea or engages the arguments of another student, it is utterly beside the point. Yet this May’s mystery convocation speaker will undoubtedly still espouse the virtues of “higher education,” as if such a concept still exists; as if we are all up here learning for learning’s sake; as if we are really interacting with each other’s ideas; as if we are here for any other reason than to get out with a degree and two letters of recommendation as quickly as possible.
At this point, even I recognize that my argument is probably somewhere between 25 and 30 percent false. I only meant to point out that the primary function of universities today is to get people jobs, whereas the primary function of universities in the 1960s was more akin to what we think about when we hear words like “education,” “knowledge” and “discourse.” Then I was going to say that the difference between the purpose of college now and the purpose of college back then accounts, in some part, for the lack of campus activism that columnists and old people always cry about. But somehow I got away from this simple point, and ended up making a number of blanket statements that are, any way you look at them, unfair.
Yes, gaining employment after graduation is a huge — maybe too huge — part of this university, but at the end of our four years most of us would say that Cornell did sufficiently “educate” us in the traditional sense. Even thinking back on my own experience on East Hill, I’m struck by how much I learned, how many class discussions I have vivid memories of, how many deep, half-drunk conversations I’ve had late on weekend nights. These memories seem to contradict the argument I made in this column, yet both of them — the memories and the argument — seem, at least in some way, true.
Tony Manfred is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at email@example.com. The Absurdity Exhibition appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.