Academia’s Ivory Tower

One of the divisors used to polarize the conservatives and the liberals is the retention of formal education. Conservatives might perceive that the “liberal elite” are stuck in their ivory tower unaware of the realities of the worker. This holds some truth. The majority of college educated people tend to lean liberal, which is an argument often used to confirm their own views. However, the problem appears when the presence or lack of a piece of paper determines the standard of living and even interaction between the “Have’s” and the “Have-not’s”. Additionally, the barriers to receiving an education (or even knowledge on its own) illustrate another iteration in which the elite use academia to uphold an oppressive system in which power is shared and retained by few.

Degrees and research for the birds 

One of the modes used to retain power within academia is the distribution of “honorary degrees,” or superfluous qualifications just for the heck of it. I have a friend who received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge, and a year later, everyone in his graduating class (who remained out of jail) received an honorary Master’s degree, just for existing. Professors hand out honorary degrees among themselves all the time just for working long enough. It’s just another ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ dilemma. Honorary degrees are also given out to people who put no money or time into earning such a degree. Kanye West holds an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? It doesn’t matter.

Additionally, knowledge (along with education) is becoming increasingly privatized. Have you tried to access a journal article but then asked to put in your credit card details (even if you’re enrolled in an academic institution and have the credentials to normally access research)? Why is access to knowledge suddenly only accessible to certain people? Shouldn’t knowledge be disseminated to everyone to improve society as a whole?

Then there’s the issue of what gets researched in the first place–or at least what gets funded.

Ask academics, research funding can only be procured if it aligns with a pre-decided agenda that is determined by the funders. The global health research field is having particular difficulties trying to procure funding for health issues adversely impacting low-income and minority individuals. For example, in the U.S., cancer and HIV/AIDS receive a disproportionate amount of funding compared to the funding procured for diabetes, which, combined with heart disease and other diet-related illnesses, is the largest killer of American citizens. Coincidentally, diabetes and diet-related illnesses disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. Only 7% of adults (>20 years) diagnosed with diabetes are non-Hispanic whites. Where is the funding now? There is a racial disparity for cancer incidences as well, but it is not nearly as stark. In this instance, the elite determines not only what gets funded, but who gets treatment.

Regardless, when the funding is accrued (for something that maintains the current status quo of research), some of the research being done is just research for research sake and doesn’t actually contribute anything to the betterment of society, just adds to researchers’ pockets.  Click here for extreme examples of when research is just plain dumb.

More degrees, more problems

Not everyone is meant to hold a degree, not everyone wants to hold a degree. Not having higher education should not label you as unintelligent or unworthy for certain jobs. Why does a receptionist need a 4-year degree to answer calls and manage schedules? But, due to the wage gap between college and high-school graduates and the unliveable federal minimum wage in many places, more and more are pushed into higher education. In 2014, the income gap between millennials who held a college degree and who held a high-school diploma was $17,500 per year–this is plenty of motivation to attend college for four years. A degree shouldn’t be a class portal.

However, many of these students are either unqualified or their passion lies elsewhere. But, how can you be accepted if you’re unqualified? First, universities are accepting more and more students because the added tuition expenses contribute to their annual earnings when the overhead costs (professor salaries, building utilities, etc.) remain the same. Second, the wealthy can incidentally give a university a large “donation” the same year their child is applying at that school. Coincidentally, the university accepts both the student and their parent’s donation. This instance was well-publicized recently when Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were implicated in bribing college administrators, SAT/ACT administrators, exam proctors, and other individuals involved in the college admission process. With that said, these aren’t the first instances of such scandals and its occurrence in the first place illustrates how hard work earning a place at university can be bypassed so easily because of money and power.

The marketization of education

The increasing financial motivator behind obtaining a degree is detrimental for two reasons: 1) it alienates the poor, and 2) it de-legitimizes academic institutions.

The first reason is two-fold: it alienates those who cannot afford to go on to higher education in the first place and are thus limited in their career opportunities, and it alienates those who obtain their degree but are left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Not only is this debt a huge financial burden for young adults who would otherwise think of traveling the world or starting families, but the interest rate on these loans is ridiculous. The fact that there is an interest rate on loans meant to further a person’s potential and employability is laughable, especially as the majority of these loans are from the government. Why does the government feel the need to profit from a student seeking enlightenment? But the value of money changes over time. Then set the interest rate to the rate of inflation, or better, suck it up.

The second reason why the marketization of academia is detrimental is due to the increasing delegitimization of universities as havens for learning. Academic institutions used to be where students stimulated their brain, were thought to think critically, and added value to society. Now, universities are operated as businesses, pulling teenagers in and turning “contributing members of society” out. The increase in attendance at universities has forced professors to reduce the rigor of their classes to accommodate the wider range of knowledge. The funding for profit-oriented, neoliberal curriculum has unceremoniously dwindled the pressure on students to think critically about the system in which they live and instead treats students as drones that will one day handle the elitist batons of servitude. Why is the curriculum for economics majors the same as it was twenty/thirty years ago? Because this system benefits those in power and the students who will someday work to ensure the same curriculum is used.

Additionally, students aren’t taking universities as serious as they used to or as serious as they should when their parents are footing the tuition bill. From my experiences attending a liberal arts college, I saw the wealth gap almost directly translated into how much effort was exerted in classes. People don’t learn if they are writing an essay the night before it’s due or memorizing content for an examination without trying to understand the significance of the content. There was a running joke that some female students were only enrolled to earn their MRS (Mrs.) degree. Jokes are based in reality. Students would miss class because they were too hungover from partying the night before (on a weekday). But college is an experience and every aspect should be embraced. Sure, I partied on weekdays as well but I still prioritized class and education over everything. If everyone had access to that experience than the education those hungover students are wasting wouldn’t be as selfish and misinformed. You wouldn’t throw away uneaten bread in front of a hungry person.

Why do these students from wealthy backgrounds who aren’t fully embracing this opportunity to gain knowledge have the opportunity to receive higher education while others are excluded from this privilege because their parents don’t have money? Why is higher education a privilege? You can call it a right, but above all, it should be an option.

Academia has its problems, but it is also problematic when those with degrees act superior to those without. Check your privilege.

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