I think often about what college is for. If it is not a gateway to professional career and prestige—which it never really was, especially not for students like ours at CSU Stanislaus—, and not a means of increasing individual wealth, then what? In brief, if all the (mainly crude) economic justifications for higher education are not true, what could be a good reason to go to college?
I reject the citizenship rationale, because not only do very few of my students aspire to this in any meaningful way, but it is not clear what citizenship would mean, and whether developing citizenship would be good for students (unlike the economic rationale).
I think I can say honestly that I believe the following.
College education is the best way to learn to understand how knowledge, information, and power work at the level at which they work to control the world. What college educators can do is explain how knowledge functions as a shape of power, how knowledge shapes social institutions and practices, and how it shapes us. The practical use of understanding all this is to be able grasp how the people who own knowledge use it, and what they do to manufacture reality with it.
Yes, there are people who own knowledge and information. These are not your teachers, but the people who, ultimately, determine what your teachers teach. They are not researchers at Stanford or Cal Tech. Instead, they are the owners of knowledge, information, and power in our society. For instance, the research professor at an R1 institution must get funding for research, and competes to get it, from those who have a vested interest in that research—the funding agencies, which are government and corporations. They own the products of that research. They literally own it. They control to a great degree whether the researcher can publish the research, profit from it, make changes to it, develop it along new lines, or anything else. In grant contracts, this is laid out specifically: who owns and controls this new knowledge. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Monsanto, Dow, and Chevron use this knowledge to maintain and increase their power. This is not power wielded repressively on us, not power that coerces us by threats of violence. This is power wielded by controlling the shape of the world, the shape of reality—and by controlling reality, the people who own knowledge shape everything that anyone can do in the world.
Knowing how this happens means you are more free, because you understand what your own choices and actions in life mean, and what they don’t mean; what you can and can’t do; and what could matter and might not matter about what you do. Knowing how knowledge, information, and power are distributed, and how the owners of them build the world we live in, makes it possible to consider strategic options for living in that world.