It’s no surprise that the increasing number of people in higher education has caused a shift, not only in the motivation for going but what they stand for in public life. Is it just a social experience, delaying the transition into adulthood? Just the modern day equivalent of national service? For many university is a means to an end: a good career.
No matter where or what subject you study there are always those who see university as a pathway to money and material gain. Yet while those individuals may be a uniquely dreary minority, many more exist in the middle ground: pursuing subjects that interest them for the time being, but who will inevitably leave academic life with the hope that their degree ensures economic security. And while I’m sensitive to people’s desire for an easy life, there is a danger in forgetting that education is an end in itself.
Commenting after tuition fees rises, Germaine Greer expressed the idea that knowledge was increasingly being viewed as something that could be commodified and that economic pressure upon young people, would make students more conservative “and just want a job qualification. They certainly don’t want to rock the boat.” With this new conformism and student being vocationally minded, this could work to erode a very real and necessary social function of universities and student politics: to cast a critical eye over society and be a place where new ideas are generated.
In writing this article, I was posed the question “would it be better if we [students] rebelled?” And instead of worrying about career prospects: “seize the day.” All things Greer herself should know a thing or two about. Littered through her life and work are two themes I think help answer -or at least start thinking about- this question. The 60s counter-culture and French existentialism.
Life as a prominent 60s radical, heavily influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, seem to fit together nicely as at the heart of both movements are attempts to address the twin concepts of rebellion and freedom. The infamous quote “by any means necessary” serves here to solidify my connection between war-time French thought and 60s America; as while many may associate it with Malcolm X, it first appeared in a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “Dirty Hands.”
Rebellion is a concept that I think should be taken seriously. Yet despite this I’m also skeptical of how far it can be an end in and of itself. While the popular imagination sees rebellion as a virtue, its true value lies in the whys and how. This is what Sartre meant when he wrote about the futility of empty rebellious ‘gestures.’ For example, if you want to resist or protest a new run-way at Heathrow, chaining yourself to a railing and then getting arrested probably hasn’t helped advance your cause.
Such acts are a source of endless frustration and are the reason for my tepid attitude towards a lot of modern day protestors and campus politics. To me fashionable rebels sell these movements short. Because in reflecting on this famous quote- so heavily associated with radicalism- we must remember the most important word ‘necessary.’
Implicit within rebellion has to be some idea of practical change we wish to implement and a successful means of bringing it about. The world is very different from 1940s France or 1960s America; we aren’t occupied by Germany or subject to extreme laws of racial segregation. Modern challenges such as poverty and the environment present unique and novel pragmatic problems. So while we all can appreciate the world is not perfect, what, if anything, can socially and ethically conscious students do to change it?
How we rebel effectively in the modern world is the question that really needs to be answered, and it could be that taking time to gain knowledge, and pursue well intentioned careers, makes us the most effective altruists. For that reason I’d argue that the true inheritors of the 60s and existentialism are not the hashtag activists or pantomime protestors but any person who cares about the problems of the world enough to not settle for easy answers.
Photograph by Moyan Brenn