By Manasvi Chaturvedi.
Students & the University
Students at the University are lost. This can be seen in a lot of ways: (ever rising) campus depression and anxiety rates, the escapism of drinking and frat parties, and the disillusionment that many feel with the University. The lack of hope for the future and for people among students is striking — aren’t young people supposed to be full of enthusiasm and striving for the world of tomorrow?
Students come to the University with a clear enthusiasm for learning and growing, and importantly, a desire to make sense of what they see around them so that they can help to make it better. They trust that the University will provide them with a framework to base their view and understanding of the world. But somehow, we see this curiosity and enthusiasm slowly die down over the four years as they become replaced by feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness. There is a lack of optimism for the future and the world, and a general belief that people are meant to be distrusted and disliked.
These tendencies are explained away as a result of college stressors and a competitive environment. Universities provide counselling, pamphlets and so-called resources to deal with anxiety and depression, and we are told that it’s “okay” to feel this down and anxious. However, if one inspects this further, it’s clear that this is odd. Our college years should be instilled with a sense of freedom, and our studies should excite and stimulate us instead of increasing the hopelessness and nihilism we feel. Even though students devote their time in different ways at the University — student groups, activist circles, jobs, research under different professors — it seems that none of these fight against or explain these feelings. In fact, it’s almost ironic that students in activist groups — those with a clear enthusiasm for wanting to do something for people — seem to lose the most faith in them and the world.
So what then is the problem? Why do students fail in their search for meaning?
There is clearly something lacking in the process we go through at University. To begin to discover what this is, the most important question we have to ask ourselves concerns what guides our education and what we consider to be its purpose.
A Disconnect from People
A common critique of the University talks about its disconnect from the lives of the people outside it, but this critique usually ends at the discussion of jargon in papers and calls to make research more accessible. However, the problem is deeper than just the language used by academics and their journals. It is evident and clearly manifested in universities’ gentrifying relationship to surrounding communities and in students’ separation from and ignorance of the people who work in their dorms and dining halls, and with whom they interact everyday. This disconnect goes to the very question of what we consider important — what is taught, what students are told is worthy of research — and on the other hand, what we ignore.
To know what an education should achieve, one needs to know the people. This is why we turn to James Baldwin, W.E.B Du Bois, and Huey P. Newton who derived their authority from the trust of ordinary people and whose lives and writings were dedicated to truly understanding the world and its workings for the progress of these people. Baldwin called himself a “witness”. He knew his role was to speak the truth about people and what the white world had done and was doing to them, and his essays carry incredible insight even today. Du Bois carried out extensive sociological and historical studies devoted to the truth and the realities of Black people. Huey, from a young age, shaped his life to be one dedicated to bettering the world around him, and his writings and speech reflect this dedication. All three men had a basis that intellectuals lack today — a connection to and understanding of ordinary people, of the lives, strivings and struggles of the masses in the U.S and the world.
Baldwin, Du Bois & Huey are all part of the Black Radical Tradition, a tradition that gives us a worldview rooted in and motivated by love for the people and a desire to better the world and humanity. It is almost impossible to find anything in the university that tells you how to live a meaningful life and one that is driven by morality — the pursuit of which might even be labelled as a sort of idealism — but the black radical tradition takes these concepts as its basis. It gives us a chance to redefine our life in terms of something larger, something to give us meaning and guide the choices we make. For Baldwin and Du Bois, the purpose of an education was the development of human beings, who like themselves, would continually strive to bring about positive change in themselves and the world, and who could ask big questions in order to do so. Baldwin writes:
“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.”
The ideas of the black radical tradition are the alternatives that students need, as Baldwin says, “to achieve” their “identity”, to understand their role in the current world, and begin to conceive a new and better world for all. This quote is especially striking in the wake of the recent protests and riots in America. The surge of online resources and links calling young people to educate themselves so they can understand these events makes it clear that somewhere, the University has failed. Students cannot rely on their education to understand what’s happening and what their role in it should be. This is emblematic of a larger confusion and ignorance about the world.
The disciplines students are trained in today are increasingly specialized and microscopic. It is not uncommon to hear students asking themselves why the things they are learning are even relevant. Very little in what we are taught seems to be pertinent to the world outside, or the majority of humanity. Throughout my studies, I often found myself wondering whether what I was learning could ever be relevant to the people I saw every day while growing up in India or say anything about their lives. Ironically, this seems especially true in disciplines that are supposed to be most connected to people: the humanities. The readings we are given in our classes are sometimes so full of abstraction that one isn’t even sure what is being said. While abstraction is of course important and often necessary, it needs to be rooted in truth and reality, as Du Bois writes in his essay, Immortal Child:
“Children must be trained in a knowledge of what the world is and what it knows and how it does its daily work. These things cannot be separated: we cannot teach pure knowledge apart from actual facts, or separate truth from the human mind.”
What we learn seems often to fit only the role of pure knowledge — it is of course, interesting and intellectual, but if we ask ourselves the question about how it relates to the millions of people outside the University, we are lost. And, if, like in the sciences and medicine, it’s possible to have a concrete answer, this answer is always within the confines of what already exists. The ability to ponder big questions, to go beyond what we are told, and critically, to be driven by a creative hope for a different and better world, is missing. Du Bois wrote that education in his time was aimed at continuing what was already in existence, of “buttressing the established order of things rather than improving it.” I think this is still true today. I think we tend to forget that we are all human. We cannot survive on detached and theoretical, or on the other hand, highly specific and narrow questions. Where is the fostering of soul, and emotion and the ability to relate to others? As Du Bois goes on to say,
“…industry is for man and not man for industry and that while we must have workers to work, the prime object of our training is not the work but the worker—not the maintenance of present industrial caste but the development of human intelligence by which drudgery may be lessened and beauty widened.”
Our education should focus on our development. This means not just a simple provision of skills, facts and theory. Du Bois’s conception of education involved the creation of free thinking human beings dedicated to positive change in themselves in the world. Instead of microscopic disciplines that teach us specific mechanics or disconnected discourse, theory, and facts, we require an education that can show us how to become confident human beings who can look at the world, seeing both the beauty in it and the problems with it, and think for themselves. We need knowledge of science, but also of history and philosophy, and how each has shaped the other. We know current research, but we also need to know what influences the focus of this research and how the tides of history and thought have shaped its foundations. We need, as Du Bois put it, “broad plans to train all men for all things.” Our education right now simply prepares us to fit into what already exists. What we truly need is the ability to imagine, and create, something better.
What Will Our Lives Mean?
If we had disciplines connected to concrete reality, what would we do with them? Questions of students’ purpose and their responsibility is the next necessary layer that our education lacks. My four years of undergraduate have made me realize that I cannot “achieve” my identity at the university, or based on the knowledge that comes from it. This is because, in spite of all my efforts to find something that I could devote my whole life to over my four years of undergraduate, I always felt like something was missing. This feeling only made sense when I saw that knowledge could be grounded in and driven by something more rather than a rootless pursuit of knowledge. Then, it made sense why the mathematical logic in formal semantics, or the discussion of how individuals “make meaning,” while interesting, seemed like pointless and dead work to me.
When I read Huey, I realized why I felt a sense of resignation when I thought about my life and future. The way I thought about my life’s direction was solely in the context of “next steps” for what I was told was the right trajectory for my field or career. However, Huey asks us a question we should all ask ourselves, and one that an ideal education would guide us towards: “before we die, how shall we live?” If we are to live a life of fulfillment, this is a question we have to continually ask ourselves. Huey answers: “with hope and dignity.” As students, we are never told to think about ourselves and our lives in this manner. How do we achieve this dignity and hope? Most of us have accepted the purpose of our lives to be material advancement — we are accountable only for ourselves and our current (and future) families, and rarely think about what a better a world for humanity would look like. Our education never teaches us to do otherwise.
It seems then that the purpose of education today is not, as Du Bois said “the development of human intelligence,” but the creation of workers who are quickly funneled into various careers, and into a life focused mostly on their own self-advancement. This happens swiftly. Students are inundated with busy work and activities that will ensure their success after college, either for jobs or graduate school, or something else. And we do this busy work, and work hard to do it well, even though our assignments and studies don’t give us fulfilment — every semester, students can’t wait to just be done with their work. There is always a pervasive anxiety about gaining security for our futures, and this is what we are told is most important. And so, instead of becoming fuller, thinking human beings, we graduate feeling tired and beaten down.
The focus on solely material advancement leads to a lot of anxiety. We fail to realize that the things we are joylessly striving towards can be taken away at any moment — and that this is why we need to base ourselves in and contribute to something else, and something more. As Baldwin writes,
“It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears”
All of us face the decision to choose what we think is most important. Will it be transient things like money and security? True improvement of oneself, and renewal, cannot be driven by a desire for such things, and ultimately selfishness, but by a love for all the people of this world. We have to face the truth, in ourselves and the world, in order to become better. A love for the people forces us to do this.
I want to end with a quote from Baldwin, one which I think reflects the current state of America well:
“I have met only a very few people – and most of these were not Americans – who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.”
If we are truly to be free, and the agents of positive change, we need to have the tools to examine ourselves and the society we live in. Only this can allow us to grow so that we are able to take responsibility for humanity, in the present and in the future, instead of just ourselves. Baldwin believed that “we are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is” — we have the ability to achieve the goal of a better society, as long as we are willing to be committed to the truth.
- Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton
- Immortal Child, W.E.B. Du Bois
- Down at the Cross, James Baldwin
- A Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin