Prestigious universities like Cornell are, in theory, institutions where talented young people receive the education, ideas and skills needed to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. A closer look into elite culture reveals that these conceptions are fantasies that serve privileged, wealthy sectors of society that equate their own interests with those of the rest of the world. While the concerns of financial institutions, big tech and other sources of extreme wealth are carefully looked after by Cornell as an institution and community, the most fundamental issues for the world’s poor majority and for future generations: Climate change, nuclear proliferation and widespread hunger, are hardly considered outside of abstraction.
That two of these issues are existential threats to human civilization is a testament to the irrationality of managerial class interests which dominate discourse among the political, business and intellectual communities. That universities like Cornell ignore calls for modest steps towards social responsibility on climate change, whereas dialogue about world hunger and nuclear proliferation is virtually nonexistent, is demonstrative of an intellectual environment that discourages cosmopolitan, rational policy in favor of the pathological preservation of the status quo.
Elite universities indoctrinate future professionals and upper-class members of society into conformity, creating generation after generation of obedient capitalists. Contrary to the commonplace, paranoid belief that universities are overrun with neo-Marxist professors and radical students, more American students study business than any other discipline. William Wang ’20 put it well when he wrote in The Sun that “There isn’t anything more intriguing and sexy than working on Wall Street for most students here.” In my own graduate field, two out of the four Ph.D. graduates last semester took jobs at banks. The vast majority of students at elite universities are not looking to change the world in any meaningful way, but to secure or maintain their position in its professional and managerial classes.
Meanwhile, discussion of bold initiatives to address the world’s problems are largely absent from the campus playgrounds of the wealthy and privileged. It is not that issues such as world hunger are unsolvable abstractions no one knows how to address, but that the majority of the intellectual establishment has determined that issues such as the fact that 150 million children have stunted growth due to malnutrition or that nine million people die of starvation every year are unimportant — at least not important enough to implement mild budgetary reforms that would radically transform the world for the great majority.
International aid organizations estimate that redirecting about 10% of global military spending could eradicate hunger and extreme poverty in 15 years. The United Nations estimates that spending about $30 billion a year could end world hunger. These are clearly achievable goals that would be of utmost urgency in a rational socio-economic system. The fact that this readily-available information goes undiscussed at Cornell and other elite centers of Western education is indicative of an intellectual culture that values the interests of the boards of Lockheed Martin, IBM and other benefactors of the taxpayer-subsidized war machine more than it values the lives of the 100 million or so who will die of hunger over the next decade.
I find that in issue after issue facing the world, moral approaches and rational approaches tend to look more or less the same.
Imagine if, rather than bowing to the will of powerful interests, the intellectual community devoted more of its resources to the establishment of a sustainable socio-economic order, or to the eradication of hunger, poverty and other manifestations of human misery. Imagine if the business-academic class had the courage or intellectual curiosity to have honest discussions about these barbaric realities. Imagine if instead of seeking that “sexy” Wall Street job, Cornellians sought to create a world in which human needs are put before investor “needs.” A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.
Imagine a world in which our universities encourage students to seek bold, rational, moral solutions to the real problems of the world. An educational environment that does not encourage us to imagine how we might strive towards a better world for all is not an educational environment at all, but a center for the manufacture of conformity and for the preservation of wealth and power.
Jacob Brown is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mapping Utopia runs every other Tuesday this semester.