Tuesday, November 10, 2015

University Education as consumer object

Much consternated hand-wringing is devoted to the seeming disconnect between college education and career paths. The mantra that college prepares people for careers is repeated despite the easily available information that roughly half of college graduates enter careers in their degree major field. This has raised questions about the legitimacy of college education as career preparation, about the legitimacy of certain disciplinary fields (i.e., those without “career paths,” overwhelmingly in arts, humanities, and disciplines of critique like ethnic or gender studies). If students go to college in order to start careers, goes the “thought,” then higher education has failed if graduates don’t enter those careers.

Oddly (revoltingly), the empty rhetoric of administrators offers keener insight. Our wise administrators can’t be bothered with linking degrees to career paths. They speak only of “student success,” which, if it means anything at all, means only that a student graduates. What such a student actually does during college is irrelevant. The only important measures of degree programs are how many students graduate, at what cost, and at what speed. The only additional measures of universities are rankings by national media in one or more of the following categories: time-to-degree, starting salaries of graduates, major sports teams.

Subjectively, graduates may have acquired significant academic and intellectual abilities, begun to master complex knowledge bases, or gone through profound personal and social transformation. Objectively, systemically, this does not matter. Individually, graduates may have developed saleable skills that allow them to command decent salaries. Systemically, whether or not this happens, higher education has succeeded.

In the understanding of many critical commentators, a significant problem faces the university because of the disconnection between individual students’ experiences, goals, and outcomes, and the priorities and rhetoric of university administrators. They have failed to comprehend higher education as a commodity and consumer object.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explains that consumer culture arises after the capitalist industry shifts from solving the problem of sufficient production to meet demand, to the production of demand. Spectacle is a quasi-ideological apparatus for the production of demand. The marketing of brands and lifestyles are its basic mechanisms.
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but some time between the end of the 1960s and the turn of the millennium, this shift overtook higher education. Prior to this shift, higher education produced technology and labor-power for capitalism. Since the shift, it has mainly produced consumers of higher education. There are multiple tracks of this consumption, more or less sumptuous depending on the tier of higher education.
Higher education is marketed and sold as brand and lifestyle in all tiers. Online for-profits, regional public comprehensive universities, local community colleges, R1 research institutions—all have niche markets and demographic targets. The consumer object they sell is sometimes called Education, sometimes Success, but whatever it is, it is desirable.

University of Phoenix is, by many measures of Education/Success, a failure. The university has poor graduate rates, iffy job placement rates, and a poor academic reputation. Nevertheless, again, our administrators wisely note that University of Phoenix and its ilk are the real competitors of regional comprehensives and community colleges.

To comprehend why this is so, we have to remain impervious to the false charms of academic standards, and instead take up the austere rigor of Jean Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer objects and the hyperreal. First of all, we must recognize that consumer objects are consumed not in their use as “real” things, but as hyperreal, spectacular objects. It is not the noxious fumes emanating from the can that one consumes, but Axe Body Spray—i.e., the hyperreal heterosexual copulation between young men and young women. It is not learning, struggling, striving, failing, thinking that one consumes, but Education. (Of course, this is not to deny that copulation, etc., do happen, but to deny that copulation is consumption. Copulation comes to an end; consumption is an endless circuit of desire-consumption-desire/consumption-desire-consumption. I omit here further elaboration of the circuits of consumption à la Volume II of Capital.)

In advertising, which provides the most significant portion of brand benefit of any consumer object, the barest link is maintained between Education/Success and other desirable goods like careers or income (for legal reasons, no doubt). Like advertising for perfumed body spray, beer, cars, or disposable cleaning wipes, there is mention of no specific effort by the consumer, no actual use, no real qualities of the product, and no demonstrable claims about the effects of the product. University of Phoenix used to advertise with the slogan “I’m a Phoenix,” which tells us that the graduate has been branded by the University. Like body spray’s effect on relations between heteronormed young men and women, branding by Phoenix is presented as having such an effect on relations between Success-normed graduates and employers.

That is to say, Education/Success begins and ends in an exchange relation among consumer objects, which now includes in its orbit the branded graduates themselves, and their employers. Students rely on that relation to acquire the means of further consumption. Employers consume the branded graduates in much the same way that one consumes beer. Universities parlay the relation into the circulation of capital in the forms of donations and additional students.

It’s remarkable how little apparent this is in my everyday work. I am confronted daily by the university brand and by the high-concept expression of it by administrators. But in classes, in talking with students or reading their papers or email messages, I labor under the apprehension of them as real people with real challenges to real learning. Because this real life goes on constantly, it’s easy to fall into believing that the brand is unreal. Some people even take it for an insult when they first hear that University Education is hyperreal, or in Bill Readings’ phrase, “in ruins.” The hyperreal is a dimension of everyday life that defies subjective understanding or mastery; it is the reality-effect of ongoing relations of symbolic exchange according to circuits of capital consumer production, in no one’s control. As such it is determinative of the conditions of real production, and appears in the guise of the real, or at least bears the same names. No wonder it is so difficult to tell whether what’s at stake in our struggle is Education or education, Student Success or students’ success, the University or the university.

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