So, I’ve been stopped out for two quarters now, and I’m wondering if I’ll come back.
Here’s my NYTimes Essay Contest submission.
“Should I Finish the Remaining Year?” a self-righteous, overly-critical, grandiose exploration of the college experience’s alignment with the corporation and global economy, by Bradley Heinz, in response to the challenge set forth by Rick Perlstein for the New York Times.
How exciting! Encouragement and intellectual space provided by a prestigious publication for me to vent about “the college experience,” or “finding myself” – three years of my life in an institution that has disappointed me. Instead of blossoming into a renaissance man exposed to the ideas and possibilities of the world, some promise of college I must have imagined, I feel as though I’ve been reduced to a specialized component of a larger society whose goal is to innovate, produce, consume, repeat. As I write here at this sidewalk café in San Francisco, having spent my summer couch-surfing and dumpster-diving as an amateur anthropologist and cultural critic, I wonder if I should drop out of Stanford.
How did I come to feel this way, I ask myself? Am I doing college wrong, or is college doing me wrong? Though I could get the grades, participate in extracurriculars, and overall achieve at or above a level that was expected of me, I always felt beside the system set up by our administrators. So, of course, college was doing me wrong. But what was wrong with it?
If my administrators read this, they might be upset. God forbid, I had a professor plant seeds of doubt into my brain early my freshman year. This worldly Buddhist Marxist radical grandpa seduced me with his lectures, exposing problems in our plutocratic market economy, the dances of our political theater, and tore foundational religious texts to shreds, not literally, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had done so for dramatic emphasis in the past. I fell in love with his brain, I had questions college wasn’t answering, and I figured he must know. He must know! So I took the best class I have yet to take at Stanford, off the grid: I read a book a week, and meet with this man in his dusty, cluttered office in his home down the road for a one on one discussion. He was critical, sure to point out where he thought I was wrong, but he was kind. He saw me as I am, the confused first-generation farmboy-gone-Stanford hoping to find the tools needed to help save the world, bewildered and discouraged to find out college isn’t all it was promised to be.
What I’ve learned is that college isn’t broken in isolation, but is a part of a larger broken society.
Damn him! This professor of mine knocked me off track, exposing the business of the knowledge-economy, how I was paying a fortune (45k+) every year to be transformed into a productive, useful corporate puzzle piece. College is not a separate space for the growth of the individual, but a training ground. Sure, we are given choices of majors and classes, but these are just shades of differences individualizing us in the pool of economic soldiers we must become.
The problem, as I see it, is that all our institutions are being shaped in the image of the corporation. Like any product, colleges are packaged up, branded by their name and rank, and advertised like crazy through mailings, websites, information sessions, where strengths are emphasized and weaknesses omitted. Prospective students shop among colleges, looking for one that fits best without having a dressing room to try it on. Once in class, we learn that competition is the name of the game. We compete for a set number of high grades to brand ourselves as better than the rest, more employable, more intelligent than our peers. Our personal lives are competitive too: do we study, do we debate, do we get drunk, do we write passionately or do we churn papers out quickly so we can enjoy our fleeting youth and play some Nintendo? We’re a competitive economy unto ourselves, our limited resource is time, and we’d better maximize it. But to what ends? Our institution itself leads by example.
Stanford sells itself to its prospective students, attracts some bright ones, and then sells its students back to the world. As a research institution, we take grants from large corporations, filter these resources through our brains, and try to re-sell whatever comes out the other end. A friend of mine took a trip to Japan with Sony footing the bill, and in the same class was assigned to design innovative computer-user interfaces for Volkswagen. Our patent office is sure to help students bring their classroom projects to market, owning the rights but giving its students credit along the way. As a liberal arts student, I’ve learned about information exchange, markets, politics, and borders, with efficiency always the emphasis. Even war, for example, is the byproduct of competition over influence, resources, and world domination. We learn the world is a business, our mission is to stay on top, and college degrees are the flashy packaging for our product-selves.
Our space outside the classroom is our playground, but it’s regulated by the same policies that govern small businesses. You want to work to stop the genocide in Darfur? Sure, fill out twenty forms, register your group, apply for funding, delegate world-saving tasks to peers, then speak out and advertise only during the officially sanctioned “free speech hour” from noon to one at the center of campus. If you want to tutor underprivileged students in the town over, or you want to volunteer at the hospital, or contribute to society however you see fit, be sure to be registered and have a sponsor so you can put these activities on your resumé for your job or graduate school. Engaging our democracy or civil society has been absorbed into the mainstream of campus culture, not as civic duty, but as a tool to differentiate you from the masses of other high achievers. “Finding yourself” at college has become an act of self-branding and figuring out at which tier you’ll be happy to integrate within the global marketplace.
Don’t get me wrong, though. In the classroom, late at night, and everywhere in between, I’ve been engaged by the intelligent discussion of global poverty, health crises, the bottom-line greed of institutions and military-industrial complexes and egomaniacal leaders and so on. College’s problem lies in trying to adjust us to win within this system, not to change the system itself. We’re lost souls in a landscape of material competition and skewed definitions of success. You run with the rats in the race, or you drop out and lose.
Me? I’m a loser. I’m joining the others singing the disillusionment of modern society, choosing not to compete in a system where starving children the world over make our shoes, thousands die because their soil holds oil, and our environment withers as we take more than is necessary or ethical. Thanks for teaching me, Stanford. You’ll find me on the sidelines, riding a bike and living off your waste, writing, speaking out, protesting, and dying to find something different, a new way of life, a revolution that students of modern institutions can’t concoct. When your job or life gets you down, try to listen to a different voice. Join us. We’re out here, and maybe together we can harmonize a tune to which we can all dance, not march.