On Friday, January 9, US president Barack Obama traveled to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here, Obama announced plans to make an associate degree as obtainable as a high school diploma. Deemed “America’s College Promise,” the new plan, according to Obama, will bring community college tuition down to zero for students.
The plan is smart. As Thomas L. Knapp of C4SS.org notes, community college is cheap in terms of infrastructure — no need to pay for student housing, large auditoriums or research facilities. The plan is also past due. There is no reason higher education should exist in the cash nexus of an advanced technological society.
Obama commented, “education helps us be better people. It helps us be better citizens. You came to college to learn about the world and to engage with new ideas and to discover the things you’re passionate about — and maybe have a little fun. And to expand your horizons.” This is of course true.
Unfortunately, this is all he had to say about education.
Obama went on to talk about the economy. He noted time and again that an advanced degree means more money and a chance at the famed middle class. The American economy, we are told, needs the American worker. “We’ve got this incredible bounty, the God-given resources that we enjoy in this country. But our greatest resources are people.” Your labor is what will allow the nation to compete in a global economy.
This is not a proposal for the sake of education, but rather for the health and longevity of the state. Your education, as your labor, is a tool of production for the machine of capitalism.
To the libertarian, however, education is an expression of individualism. If we imagine education without the state, we are left with self-directed learning, initiative, creativity, co-operative/mutual labor and robust competition between academic institutions. Education is re-imagined as a lifelong pursuit of one’s unique interests. It is not something to be done once for a 9 to 5.
Of course, imagining education without the state also means imagining markets liberated of capitalism. Actually existing capitalism is a system of control; it subordinates human labor. One must (as opposed to voluntarily) rent his or her body and time to capitalists to earn a living. To ensure economic growth we must continually work so we can spend our hard earned dollars.
In Strike Magazine, anthropologist David Graeber notes that advanced technological societies could, right now, achieve a 15-hour work week. This would, according to Graeber, “free the population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas” — the very reason to pursue an education.
Why hasn’t the 15-hour work week been accomplished? Because free, liberated time renders systems of power useless. The powers state-capitalist institutions hold are not justifiable — they must keep us busy or we would provide their services, education included, ourselves and dismantle them.
Education, for life, should be easily accessible and free. We have the technology to accomplish this. Take for example the Massive Open Online Course, or “MOOC” phenomenon. MOOCs are courses offered online, for free, that are open access and boast unlimited participation. They are proof zero-cost, democratic education is attainable.
Liberated of state, and beyond capitalism, education will evolve. Our societies will evolve. We will have more time to invest in learning, community, family and friends. Obama’s proposal is progressive, but unimaginative — the burden of state capitalist power remains. We can imagine more. We can be free people, in a free society.
The creative, innovative potential of such a society is astounding. I’ll see you at school.