The corruption of college


Let's start with a hypocrisy warning: I have gone back to college three times for degrees. First time because I was told that was what everyone did; second time, because I migrated and wanted to have a degree that was respected in the UK; and third time, because I wanted to read history and thought that it was the great unfinished business in my life.

But, it is precisely because I did all those things, I feel the college, in its most common form available today, corrupts us.

However, there is more than just individual corruption. Obsession with college can destroy whole nations. I am Bengali after all, and I think the college fetish corrupted whole generations of Bengalis who became degree obsessed (which explains my own misadventure), disconnected and impractical people. We stopped doing things, living life and travelling around the world. We took college degrees as ends in themselves and thought that everyone around us would think the same. Sadly, that was not to be.

This explanation of the decline of Bengalis as a community may sound strange at a time when college education is seen as the key to the knowledge economy, and therefore, national prosperity. But that general theory of college education is completely wrong-headed. Empirically speaking, college today solidifies privilege in a society and blocks, rather than encourages, new thinking. Whatever happened after the second world war and in the wake of massive public investment in education is completely behind us: Benjamin Franklin thought college was useless and we are back to that point again.

In fact, at least Franklin thought it taught the art of polite conversation. It doesn't do that any longer: It mostly produces individuals with a sense of entitlement, who look down upon the rest of the humanity and try to tell them how to live, speak or work. There is this cult of intellect which positions brainwork as separate from work by hand, and makes life an enterprise in the quest of leisure.

I think this is what modern college teaches one: That work - particularly work by hand - is an unnatural state of life, to be left to the unfortunate, the minorities and the women (who seem to live a life of work in any case); the educated must aspire for leisure, doing 'higher' stuff that really matters. And, therefore, increasingly that 'higher' stuff is about speculating, as if a fraction of a percentage of return is all that life is about. On that basis, we created this fragile edifice, this big speculative civilisation, where nothing except some trading room antics seem to matter. 

Now that everyone started questioning what good experts are for, there is general panic among those who thought that their only job is thinking. They are now complaining that everything seems to be fluid, without accepting that college obsession has actually made it so. We have built this disconnected hot-houses, sold to the privileged for preservation of privileges. 

We are living through a period of breakdown. The post-war order is melting away and new realities are fast emerging: Only a few years ago, the current war in Ukraine, the utter disregard of all conventions at the heart of the British government, inflation, Covid, would have utterly inconceivable. Now, they are all upon us. And, faming out our thinking to a few special people who happened to go to college, and farming out all our work to people who are fortunate enough to go to a good one, wouldn't get us out of this mess. We need to do meaningful work and purposeful thinking. College actually comes in the way: It corrupts.




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