“Most University organizing and activism is designed to funnel young adults on the cusp of being radicalized into neoliberal models of social management via 501(c) 3/4s to keep acquired networks, resources and knowledge where they can be monitored and disciplined via funding.”
César Miguel @cesarmvm
There are a lot of issues in academia around elitism and classism, most of those closely tied to racism. The U.S. education system was built around the socialization of children, to ensure that they all held similar values and beliefs (i.e. the system works and is good).
Extreme versions of this were used in Native assimilation programs where the government would separate Indigenous children from their families and cultural education. At the same time, Black people during slavery were severely punished for trying to teach themselves and risked their lives to learn. Education was a luxury of the rich, and was not funded well or widespread in rural communities. However, all the education taught was based on what would uphold the system, not the truth.
Many of these systems operate similarly today: Indigenous and Black people are taught a whitewashed version of what happened on this land and poor communities have underfunded schools, all while rich people continue to run the institutions and make the rules for others to play by. Poor white people do not question the system because they are taught to identify with the rich, rather than other marginalized people. The education system is used to reinforce capitalism by helping rich people get richer under capitalism and poor white people stay poor in order to gain the social capital of being white.
College activism is important and often detrimental for the same reasons: more people are attending college now than ever before. Most of this influx is because we were taught in school that in order to be successful, we must first “pay our dues” and go to college. These dues are either pocket change for the rich to do whatever they want for a few years, 18 years of meticulous saving by parents, or a mountain of student debt designed to keep people paying into an institution long after they stop getting any benefits from it. So many of us decide to pay to get ahead that there are not enough “elite” jobs to justify the amount of people going to college. Still we keep going, expecting college to get us better paying jobs. At the root of this, we are expecting to pay money so we rise in class ranks. The more you think about the rhetoric around going to college (i.e. “to have a better life”) the sicker that statement becomes. Essentially, it is saying that because you went to a place for 4 years and paid a certain amount of money, now you deserve to live better than other people.
It is the same rhetoric that the military industrial complex uses to lure poor people into doing heinous crimes for U.S. imperialism, the U.S. extending its power into other states through force and coercion. It is designed to pull people from the working class, give them four years of curriculum that tells them they are now smarter and better than other working people; they become a special kind of elitist, sometimes with no significant change to their living conditions. It is a way to indoctrinate the working class into believing in the system.
However, college has also turned into a way for young people with few options to leave their parents or guardians. Capitalism believes in a certain cis-hetero family structure (mother and father with biological children that they effectively own the rights to), so these institutions tie your financial aid to your parents. For some people, especially trans kids, they take on the burden of this debt to escape abusive households. What does your class interests look like when you are institutionally tied to your abuser?
For others, their parents refuse to or just cannot help fund their college. Federal poverty guidelines are not based on a living wage, so many people do not qualify for aide that still cannot afford college. What does that mean in a world where the most economically exploited people (primarily made up of Black people, Indigenous people, trans people, disabled people, etc.) are systematically barred from entry?
Middle class people are often not getting everything they should out of this system, either, but have distanced themselves from poor people intentionally. Academia teaches you that you deserved to get into this institution and deserve a better life because you put in labor and are naturally elite to those that did not get in. Meanwhile, the middle class continues to shrink because those people are getting poorer over time. This system keeps certain people out, while middle class people keep buying into a system that also isn’t working for them.
However, all of this should serve to outline that this system does not benefit the poor, especially marginalized racial and social groups, the way that it benefits middle class people. The truth is middle class people are not the target of class warfare, but they still believe that they deserve what they do have and poor people deserve to be poor.
Liberal student activists are not exempt from this. They often believe that they deserved to get into college. White college students did not get into college because they “deserved” it. As a matter of fact, no one got in because they deserved it. The only people welcomed in are those whose position benefits the class structure and the institution. This is how a racist institution decides to play its hand in order to satiate the masses while still reinforcing the system, like how they receive grant money for having someone in a certain minority group in their staff. These institutions have no interest in changing a system that keeps them elite, so they take up liberalism as an alternative to revolution.
They create avenues for “advocacy” that are based in this system still existing, that are able to be surveilled, and assure the students that they support their endeavors. For example, universities allow student group to work on certain issues because they can control funding and who attends the events. They may put stipulations on queer and trans events that minors cannot be present because the content is “inappropriate.” They allow panels on racism because the topic is usually focused around preserving the institution (ex. how do we address racism on campus?) instead of liberation from it (ex. how do we dismantle capitalism, smash white supremacy, and rebuild an education system that teaches real history and is able to be accessed by everyone?).
Why was I taught in college that the Black Panthers were a terrorist organization? This is a group that fed its community’s children so they could do better in school, provided free medical clinics, and opened a Youth Institute (also know as Oakland Community School) that received an award for providing the best elementary education in the state of California, along with other social service programs that people needed. Teaching students that these people are dangerous and criminals is used specifically to deter activists that could become organizers from using strategies that work. These “educational” institutions demonize education that works for everyone and teaches outside of a white supremacist lens. There is a strong history of college radicalization, but this system has gotten good at redirecting that energy into upholding the system through liberal politics. Just like Miguel’s tweet stated, these institutions have real interests in keeping people who might become radicals from developing these politics because it will necessarily mean the dismantling of these institutions if they do.
So I’m deeply hurt when I hear student activists say “I am surprised they could even read this” and “bold to assume (ignorant person) could get into college.” These words directly conflate the oppressed with their oppressors, blaming them for the same violent system used against them. Making fun of people who did not go to college, even if it is aimed at a bigoted person, mocks all people that cannot go to college. This statement mocks people who are institutionally barred from entrance. This statement also upholds the idea that people who go to college are worth more than people who do not because they are smarter according to a white supremacist standard. So the rhetoric that bigoted people are too “bad” to get into college ignores the fact that 1) high levels of leftists within higher education is a myth and a right wing talking point, 2) we live in a capitalist system and liberals are not that far from conservatives, 3) higher education has a vested interest in upholding white supremacy, and 4) liberatory education with a foundation of solidarity among oppressed groups is the only way to fight ignorance.
Similarly, mocking someone based on reading level is elitist, classist, racist, and ableist. Literacy is used by white supremacy and capitalism to justify exploitation of so-called “unskilled workers” and to destroy cultures. People have “low reading levels” for a multitude of reasons, all based on the fact that our education system does not work for everyone. I grew up with people that could not read, and many times it was because those children were Black or poor or both and the education system was not made for them to succeed. There is such a deep history of white supremacists intentionally keeping Black literacy rates down to bar them from school, voting, and, ultimately, freedom.
Beyond that, someone’s worth should not be predicated on someone’s reading ability. If someone does not have the ability to read, it does not mean you are better than them. Using that as a way to make fun of a bigot only reinforces racist, classist, ableist ideas about worth in this system. There are so many things to make fun of bigots for, especially those that have gone to college and refuse to change. It is not okay to mock people for their abilities (reading level included) or education history because none of those things have to do with their views and only make fun of people who are disenfranchised by this system. There are so many better insults to throw at bigots that are not hurting an entire group of people and reinforcing capitalist ideas about worth and dignity.
If you wonder why working class folks hold such a resentment towards academic elites, just look at how you talk about us. You blame us for not being able to succeed in a system that was meant to exploit us until we die, and you were and are the group that helped create the divisions between us. Western academia was never a place of moral high ground, it was always a way to teach the powerful how to maintain power and indoctrinate the rest of us. It is time that we start teaching ourselves real knowledge and using it towards our liberation. That will never happen through a university; it will only happen through us, in our homes and in our communities.